Today’s NaNoWriMo tip: Don’t look. Do. Not. Look.

Only four days into National Novel Writing Month and I’m already addicted to my writing stats on I add in new words with the glee of a junkie. (Do junkies have any glee in their lives? I don’t really know. This might be a terrible metaphor, and a perfect example of why research is a good idea for fiction writers, not just journalists.) As I get off on watching my Total Words Written go up, my Words Remaining go down, it’s tempting to drum my fingers together and let loose some Dr. Evil MWA-HA-HAs. But there’s to time for drumming my fingers together! Must write more!

That’s what I did last night. I didn’t get started on my daily word count until after 9 p.m., so I had to get busy, people. I hammered out the words while food dried to dishes in the kitchen — I never do that — and my husband distracted the cat, who is a wild man at that time of night. I kept hammering as my husband went to bed, and the cat settled into his favorite chair for a nap. I wrapped up, logged my words for the day and watched in satisfaction as it translated my entry into respectable numbers on my novel’s stats page.

Then, this morning, when I went to the site, I saw this:

Screen shot 2013-11-05 at 7.14.41 AMGoose egg. Goose egg that’s bringing my Average Per Day (and writing spirit) down, man.

So don’t look in the morning, when it’s a brand new day for WriMos. Just don’t. Don’t even go to the site to look at a frenemy’s failing stats so you can get a little pre-coffee schadenfreude. Write first, log in and look later. Because that goose egg is a rough way to start your day. (And don’t do schadenfreude, either. You have too much writing to do to waste energy on that.)



Things you shouldn’t do in Southeast Asia

A macaque approaches in Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest. Jerk.

A macaque approaches in Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest. Jerk.

There are a few things you shouldn’t do while traveling in Southeast Asia. Like:

  • Fight a monkey
  • Go into the outdoor bathroom without shoes
  • Wade into the “sacred spring” and douse your head in water
  • Fight a monkey

I repeated the last one because it’s important. Monkeys can carry rabies. And they’re vicious little bastards. They’re smart, and they’ll bite and claw humans for a banana (why give them an excuse to come near you?!?) or a water bottle or in my case, a new sarong in a plastic bag dangling from my fingers.

But if you’re going to bother to go on vacation on the other side of the planet, you want to have a full-value experience. So it’s tempting to do stupid stuff. Quite tempting. OK, it’s imperative for that whole full-value experience thing, because when else are you going to find yourself in the middle of Bali — I’m still not even sure where it was since I was driven there — at the Tirta Empul staring down the opportunity to hop into the waist-deep water and wash away evil by dumping spring water over your head?

Wash, rinse, repeat!

My doctor specifically told me not to swim in fresh water. Salt water, the ocean, is fine, she said. But fresh water carries schistosomiasis. She printed me a Travax Provider Health Report before I left, here’s what it says about schistosomiasis exposure:

…Schistosomiasis, transmitted by waterborne larvae that penetrate intact skin…

Intact skin. Why would my skin not be intact?!? Larvae. Ugh I can’t think about larvae.

Bali's Tirta Empul, or temple of sacred kind of growy.

Bali’s Tirta Empul, or temple of sacred waters…is kind of growy.

But then you’re there, and you see the algae-filled spring just behind the row of spigots pouring sacred water into the stone pool and you think, “oh it’s probably fine, even though it might not be,” and you shrug and step into the cool, refreshing water. Your sarong — which you fought a monkey for — floats up around you as you walk to the first spigot. You cup the water in your hands, hesitating. But you feel the calm wash over you, even the still-dry top of your head.

Suddenly, the top of your head is dry no more.

This hardly seems dangerous after you’ve heeded the warning “there’s a baby scorpion on the floor in the toilet” by slipping on your flip-flops that time, but not on subsequent trips to the toilet.

Plus, if you’re me, you had to fight a monkey just to have the sarong, which is required at temples on Bali. The day before I went to Tirta Empul, I bartered for a pretty silk sarong in a textiles shop in Ubud. I still probably paid too much for it, but I wasn’t complaining…until I passed through the edge of Ubud’s Monkey Forest and forgot that the aggressive little macaques that inhabit the forest liked to try to steal anything we humans are carrying — especially easy gets, like a dangling plastic bag.


No. Not lunch. My sarong. As soon as the bugger grabbed it, my mom started yelling “LET IT GO!” That’s what they say you should do when the macaques grab anything off you, including your purse. But as Mom yelled, I paused. I looked down at that macaque, who was looking back at me with my new green sarong in his teeth because he’d torn a hole through the plastic, and thought:

“I’m not letting this monkey have my new sarong.”

My left hand met my right to pull the bag back with both hands as I looked at him and growled, grrr!

Do not, if you go to the Sacred Monkey Forest, growl at a monkey. Don’t even do a quick little growl like I did. This is a terrible idea. Even though it totally worked.

The meanie macaque gave up, let go of my sarong and walked away. And I like to think that the along with the evil in my soul, the sacred waters also washed away any leftover monkey spit on my sarong.


For outdoorsy gals: an FUD nonreview

Warning: This post is a review, or as it turns out, a non-review of FUDs–female urination devices, in outdoor-industry speak. It’s about pee funnels. If you don’t want to read about the trials and tribulations of women trying to pee standing up in the woods or on a climb, stop here.

As I told my friend Sara, the Rock Climber Girl, someone has to do it. Love them or hate them, someone’s gotta talk about pee funnels.

The Freshette and the GoGirl, hiding in the bottom of my pack

The Freshette and the GoGirl, hiding in the bottom of my pack

I picked up an FUD known as the Freshette at REI over the winter. The Freshette was a recommended item on the Chicks With Picks packing list, and I figured it was time for me to learn how to use one of these, anyway. The pants I favor for both skiing and ice climbing, Patagonia Winter Guide Pants, sport removable suspenders, and I like ’em. They help keep my pants up on days when I’ve layered lightly. However, the suspenders are not easy to remove. They fasten with velcro and are finicky. Thus, a pee funnel sounded like a better idea than stripping a jacket or two every time I needed to go.

FUD manufacturers like to tell you to practice in the shower first. This is a red herring. Peeing into an FUD in the shower is easy, because you were probably smart and removed all clothes below the waist out of fear. The only challenge is, well, peeing standing up, which I’ve learned feels totally unnatural (perhaps if you’ve done it enough, this goes away). You have to really talk yourself into it. For me, this goes against instinct far more than hauling myself up a wall of ice, even though we all know ice climbing is stupid.

What the FUD manufacturers should tell you is, practice in the shower all Pataguccied out: Wear your Capilene bikinis, baselayer bottoms and your Winter Guide Pants, with suspenders over your shoulders, and put your harness on, being sure to add some gear to the loops (weighs down the waistbelt, gets in the way). Boots are optional.

After a successful half-naked shower pee or two, I naively thought I was set for real-world funnel peeing. I was wrong. At CWP, I did battle with the clothing listed above and failed. If you don’t tilt your FUD the right way, I learned, the pee will spill out the back. Pants and zipperless, seamless baselayers make achieving a perfect tilt rather challenging. Take it from me, peeing on yourself at the bottom of an icy, shady canyon in January is a huge drag. At least my clothing dried quickly, but gah, it was really unpleasant for a while and wow does hot pee turn cold fast.

It’s enough to make a girl weigh her options: Risk peeing on yourself again, or bare your ass to the wind like you always have?

I chose the latter.

I’d given up on FUDs until we went to France, where I found myself in the middle of an otherwise male rope team on a glacier. I considered whipping out my Freshette, which I was carrying but not using. It was useless weight in my pack, heavy on my conscience, because real women, I knew, used pee funnels on rope teams. But I’d lost confidence in my FUD abilities. It was easier when I didn’t have the FUD option, when I had to squat. I think I might know how toddlers feel when they’re potty training now. This FUD situation was totally stressing me out. It was easier to squat with a harness on and hope I wasn’t over a snow bridge, because boy, that would be an awkward crevasse rescue.

Since my failure on the glacier prompted more funnel discussions with girlfriends, Sara thought of me when she saw the GoGirl display at Outdoor Retailer. (Isn’t that sweet?) She picked one up for me, and it was such a thoughtful gesture that I agreed to write a review (she reviews gear on her site). The GoGirl arrived not long after I came home from Chamonix, and I immediately threw it into my backpack and proceeded to carry it, alongside the defunct Freshette, out climbing at least six times without using it.

I didn’t have the nerve to risk climbing at Lumpy with pee on my capris.

Finally, two days ago, I was cragging up Boulder Canyon and nature called. I sighed. I thought of the review I’d agreed to write, and out of guilt took off my harness and dug the GoGirl out of the bottom of my pack. Unlike the Freshette, the GoGirl is soft and flexible–too flexible, if you ask me. It folded and buckled as I tried to maneuver it into place, and I fully lost confidence in it. Once again, I couldn’t commit.

So I’m sorry, Sara. Rather than writing an FUD review, I’ve written a psychological review of why I haven’t managed to master peeing while standing up–an ode to squatting, if you will. My hope is that other women will read this and feel they’re not alone in their FUD anxiety. Some women, I know, will even risk dehydration to avoid awkward situations, which is dangerous since it can lead to altitude sickness. Personally, I’d rather have people see my big white booty than end up dehydrated, but the point is, I’m not the only woman out there with issues, so lend your friends some words of support. For me, those words are ‘squat now, serenity now!’

(But better yet, if you’ve mastered the art of the FUD, please leave a comment and tell me how to work around all of that winter clothing sans stress, because it does still seem like a good idea.)

Boulder Wave: A local cycling phenomenon

Dave Zabriske warming up at the 2009 Tour de France--tres chic.

Dave Zabriske warming up at the 2009 Tour de France--tres chic.

Someone I follow on Twitter recently tweeted:

Why don’t cyclists in Boulder wave back when I wave to them?

This is a Boulder cycling phenomenon that is particularly shocking and upsetting to we friendly former Midwesterners. In the Midwest, there aren’t many cyclists, so when you encounter another one, you can’t help but wave in excitement. And I might be biased since I’m from St. Louis, but I think Midwesterners are a friendly bunch. Just ask Garrison Keillor. We’d probably wave even if our roads had more cyclists than cars.

Maybe. (See No. 5 below)

But I remember that feeling on my first rides here 8 years ago: You’re let down, and then feel snubbed, and then you’re just mad enough to spend a ride counting how many people wave back, which means you have a lousy ride and spend most of your post-ride stretch calculating the percentage of unfriendly folks riding bikes in Boulder County.

The poor guy on Twitter did the same thing and arrived at an abysmal number.

I don’t want people to spend rides like this, so I’d like to offer some theories as to why cyclists in Boulder County do not wave.

1. We’re a little self-absorbed and fanatical. Sorry. If someone is training for five charity rides, seven triathlons and an adventure on Kokopelli’s Trail this fall, he or she might be too focused to notice the nice people waving.

2. You might be a gumby. Okay, yes this is harsh. But someone has to tell you the truth. This is a sport with a strict safety code AND a strict fashion code, and sometimes they go hand in hand. If you’re violating the rules of either code, you’re probably viewed as a gumby by the cyclists who have it together, and those cyclists are not going to wave at a gumby.

Here are some clues that you might be a gumby:

-You wear your helmet far back on your head, exposing your forehead. Not only does it look ridiculous to have bangs when you’re wearing a helmet, you’ve rendered your helmet useless for a frontal impact. Are your bangs going to protect your head from the pavement if you faceplant? No. Lower your helmet.

-You ride in a baggy cotton T-shirt and lycra bike shorts. Wearing a cotton T-shirt is only okay if you wear baggy pants with it and ride something with fat tires. Or if you are skilled enough to star in the next MTB flick by the Collective.

-You wear underwear under your bike shorts. Not only is VPL a serious cycling-fashion faux pas, it’s (probably) uncomfortable. (I’ve never done it, so I can’t say for sure.) Bike shorts are designed to be worn right against your skin; let them do their job.

-You’re riding a hybrid, torso bolt upright, on fat tires on Highway 36, and you are unable to take a hand off your bars to grab your water bottle without weaving. First, this bike should be reserved for bike trails in town, not battling wind on the open road. Technically, except for the weaving, the only dangerous thing about this is that everyone on their skinny-tired, aerodynamic little road bikes will blow past you so fast that you’ll become disoriented and end up riding offroad into the buffalo farm off Nelson Road. The good news? Those fat hybrid tires will finally come in handy. (Exception: A friend of mine is riding one of these right now with flat pedals and one leg in a knee-to-toe brace. Riding through an injury is hard core, and being hard core lets you break the rules.)

I know what you’re thinking after all of this gumby-bashing: Jenn Fields is a full-on snob. Not true. We all start as gumbies, and I credit my friends (especially my husband) for teaching me all of this and more right away, thus severely shortening my squirrely gumby stage. Forget about looking goofy–wearing your helmet correctly is a safety concern. And riding fast on skinny tires is just more fun.

I’m also not the only one. There’s communal snobbery in this sport. Case in point: This is a community that adores BikeSnobNYC. (If you read him, you’re probably not a gumby.) And if you think you’re exempt from the snobbery, go ahead, tell me you’ve never thought twice about which socks to wear on a group ride. Tell me you’ve never coordinated your bar tape and your bottle cages. We all know you’re matchy-matchy for reasons of style, not function. Which leads me to…

3. There’s a pecking order. Last year, I joined a club/team, which resulted in me owning a club kit. This was the first time I’d ridden in Boulder in a club kit, and I noticed that when I wore said club kit, I elicited more waves from other people in their various club kits. On days when I wore random jerseys and shorts, I didn’t get many waves from the club/team crowd.

(By the way, joining a club/team made me realize what I love most about cycling–riding alone.)

My husband raced for ages and has noted this pecking-order waving in Boulder, too. Apparently I didn’t just join a club–I joined the club, the club of the teams/clubs with their team/club kits and races. That is the kicker–do you race? If you’re not a racer, the other racers might not wave at you in brotherly race-worn affection. (PS, if you’ve cleaned someone’s post-race road rash, like I have, you know racers earn the right to be in a club of their own. Kudos, racers.) But pay attention, sensitive wavers. If the racers do acknowledge you…

4. Don’t miss the subtle wave. The racers love subtle, casual greetings while riding. It’s much more suave than taking your hand off your bar to wave. (If you take your hand off your bar, you might as well sit up and take both hands off the bars and fiddle with something in your pockets, or make sure your sunglasses are perfectly adjusted over your helmet straps, never under.) A few examples of the subtle greeting:

-Lifting one’s fingers off the bar, but keeping the palm on the bar.

-Lifting a sole finger off the bar, almost pointing at the person. Bang bang. Palm still remains on bar.

-The nod. This one does not require lifting a finger and is especially easy to miss. Thus it is the slickest option and is widely used in Boulder County.

Subtle greetings are also convenient, because…

5. It’s all about the numbers. I thought about trying to count cyclists on my ride today, just for this post. But I knew I would lose track; it was windy, and I had my head down a lot when I had a shoulder to ride on. I’m sure I could have counted at least 30 people on my hour-long ride, probably 40. Some of them were in small groups, true, but–are you really going to wave 40 times in an hour? That’s an average of one wave every minute and a half. It’s enough to cause even the friendliest of Midwesterners a wearing out their welcoming attitude. If you’re new to Boulder or just visiting, don’t be put off by the lack of waves. There are simply too many cyclists to wave at all the time. Most people are nice–I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people slow to ask stopped cyclists if they need a tube or a tool. Remember, a lot of us Coloradans are former Midwesterners, eager to lend a hand in any way we can.

Vive la Colorado: How to avoid post-expedition blues

From our window: one of many rainbows after evening rains in Chamonix

From our window: one of many rainbows after evening rains in Chamonix

One rainy evening during our final weeks in Chamonix, we met up with guides Adam and Caroline George for a drink at a chic little bar. Caroline asked who I’ve worked with at Climbing magazine, and I asked what topics she’d covered for Climbing.

“My first story was about post-expedition blues,” she said.

I’d never heard the term, but I instantly knew what it was–and wondered whether the hub and I would have it since our 2.5-month adventure in France was an expedition (even though we were never in danger of being eaten by polar bears).

We climbed in the Aiguilles Rouges on the morning of our last full day in Chamonix, stopped by our favorite sandwich shop, and then returned to the cramped apartment we’d called home since mid-May to pack up.

Climbing gear, packed and ready for the Alps

Climbing gear, packed and ready for the Alps

Packing for a trip that long is an epic endeavor. I’d learned that in May, when suitcases and clothes and climbing gear covered our ample floorspace back home. Somehow, nearly everything we’d needed (and several things we didn’t need) made it into two bags under 50 pounds and two carry-ons each. Repacking for the return was easier–everything must go. (Though easier, it’s still best fueled by one last Euro espresso.)

The morning we left, we didn’t have much time for wistful glances at the glacier-torn peaks we’d seen in sun, storm and alpenglow. Our shuttle driver hustled 200 pounds of clothes and gear into the back of his van and we were off to the Geneva airport.

Our first day back in Longmont, we drove to meet friends for breakfast. That’s right, we drove. And the next day, we drove down to Eldorado Canyon to go climbing. Drove. We didn’t drive once while we were in Europe. I could count on one hand the number of times we rode in cars in Cham. When we wanted to go climbing in Chamonix, we walked to one of three places: the local crag, the train station, or a cable car.

We didn’t want a car in Chamonix. It seemed like a huge hassle to have one–streets are closed for pedestrians, there’s nowhere to park. Coming home to a land of exurbs and massive parking lots and forced driving was a bigger culture shock than not saying “merci au revoir!” every time I left a shop or restaurant.

But despite the pains of our car-dependent culture, despite missing those morning walks to the crag or cable car, the post-expedition blues haven’t set in. Why not? Here’s my sole revelation on the topic:

On the Mer de Glace

On the Mer de Glace

I spent most of my summer in one of my favorite places in the world. And I’ve returned home to one of my favorite places in the world. Want to avoid the post-expedition (or post-vacay) blues? Live somewhere that makes your heart race. Plant roots where there’s so much to do that your mind boggles. Make friends who have the same passion for the place and go play together. Often.

For me, living in Colorado has fit all of those criteria. In the nine days we’ve been home, we’ve climbed, hiked, ridden our bikes and caught up with friends. Yeah, I have to drive, and I don’t walk out my front door and see glaciers leading up to Mont Blanc. But I see mountains I haven’t visited, and I can drive to them this weekend if I like. The expedition continues.

This summer, I conducted a work/play experiment in the Alps. I moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the seventh in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Le Jour du Tour

Tour info flyer volunteers were passing out at the Annecy train station

Tour info flyer volunteers were passing out at the Annecy train station

Anyone planning a sojourn to a stage of the Tour de France should bring the following three things: a bottle of water, a sense of humor, and an escape plan.

We hopped on a train in Chamonix to head to Annecy on Thursday, where the final time trial of the Tour was held this year. After watching the Tour on the tube for 10 years, we though it was the perfect introduction: We could skip the long walk from a faraway parking area, and unlike other stages, this was an all-day event–the riders wouldn’t breeze by all at once, before stunned fans have time to cry “ALLEZ!” much less snap a photo.

Since the big guns didn’t go off until later in the day (the racers start the time trial in reverse order of their overall standing–thus the yellow jersey starts last), we headed to the team buses first. When you’ve never been to the Tour, it’s exciting just to see the team buses, bikes, the mechanics and their piles of tools and bike parts. Even a domestique rolling by is cause for an ooh or ahh, partly because the stars command crowds that make them difficult to spot. Thus our circuit of the team area went something like this: “There’s the Saxo Bank bus!” (We caught a glimpse, through a horde of people, of Fabian Cancellara warming up.) “Look, it’s Dave Zabriske’s bike!” (Dave himself followed. He lazily swung a leg over his stars-and-stripes ride and acknowledged the crowd gathered at the fence before plugging into his iPod.)

We cruised by the Astana bus, but since it was so early in the day, we figured there was no way we’d see Lance or Contador. Their races were still hours away. Besides, we couldn’t see into their warm-up area through the crowd already gathered there.

I was leaving the edge of this crowd when someone started parting it for a car to come through. I looked up and saw a Astana car, and in the passenger seat was undoubtedly the Lance Armstrong.

Just as I silently gasped, someone else cried “Armstrong!”

One of the photos I snapped overhead--wish I were taller.

One of the photos I snapped overhead--wish I were taller.

Chaos ensued. The crowd was crushing. Personal space and free will evaporated into the hot, humid air. I had no choice but to move with the wave toward Armstrong’s car, which was trying to deposit the legend right at the gate that kept the crowds out of warm-up area in front of the buses. All I could do was giggle and clutch my camera in my hand.

Two or three layers of people divided me and Lance as he got out of the car, and still crushed by people on all sides, I couldn’t see anything but the backs of the fans in front of me. I laughed outright–it was completely absurd, mob-like behavior, and I was trapped in the middle of it. So I raised my camera overhead and held the button down, aiming for where I hoped Lance might be.

The crowd shifted, and I could tell Lance had made it to the team bus. I suddenly found myself pressed against the passenger side of the empty car. But the top of the car wasn’t empty.

Lance's time-trial bike

Lance's time-trial bike

The roof rack held his time-trial bike.

Seeing Lance Armstrong’s bike up close is the next best thing to seeing Lance Armstrong. The same is true for photos–I didn’t get one of Lance until later, when he rode out for his time trial. But I took plenty of photos of the bike up close.

From there, I spotted my companions for the day: my husband, and Michael, our mountain guide from Chamonix (who also leads bike trips and is a huge cycling fan).

“Were you there when Lance got out of the car?!?”

“No,” I said with a chuckle, “I didn’t see him get out at all.”

We spent the next few hours wading our way to the start, the finish, and watching riders and fans all the way. Just after the Lance excitement, we’d figured out that one of the best places to see riders come and go was the sole gate to the team bus area–finishing riders would roll into here sucking wind, and fresh ones headed out to the start from here. We decided the starting line would be too crowded to see the final riders, so we’d park here until the yellow jersey passed by, then bolt for the train while everyone else bolted for the starting line.

Alberto Contador heading to the start of the time trial

Alberto Contador heading to the start of the time trial

Our escape plan worked. George Hincapie rolled in after finishing his time trial just before Bradley Wiggins rolled out. Lance and the Schleck brothers followed, and finally Alberto Contador. Unlike the packed starting line, here we had front-row seats. And an easy walk to the train station.

However, the day didn’t end until we’d watched the television coverage back at our apartment in Chamonix. There’s a trade off when you go to the Tour in person: You get to breathe in the excitement of the often costume-clad crowd and see the riders tear by, but it’s easy to miss what’s so easily captured on TV, like the time splits and the standings. So like any other day of the Tour de France, we found ourselves catching up on our couch–crowd free, with closer, but much less exhilarating, views of the pros.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the sixth in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Workation France: Après-ick

I was sick of being sick.

We’d been in France for about a month, and I’d been sick most of that time. Just as I started to feel better, I came back from visiting our friends in Hamburg with an upper-respiratory gunk. In late June, a bright morning sun shone over Chamonix and I glared out our top-floor apartment window at the perfect day to spend outdoors, desperately trying not to think about being cooped up indoors. Again.

But I couldn’t help thinking about it. Tears welled up. I fought them, but that made them burst out all at once in a deluge of frustration.

For a month, I’d barely climbed or hiked. I wasn’t deathly ill, of course, just enough to stop me from doing what I’d come to Chamonix to do. And our apartment is way too small to spend so much time in–especially on laundry day, because we don’t have a clothes dryer, so everything hangs on a drying rack on the “living room” for about 24 hours… I missed my health, my doctor, our dryer, my sanity.

In the middle of my fit, Jeremy asked me: “Do you want to go home?”

“NO!” I shouted, “I’m not leaving until we climb more, till we do everything we wanted to do, even if we have to stay longer to do it now!”

Topping out on the Aiguillette d'Argentière

Topping out on the Aiguillette d'Argentière

My outburst somehow expunged the last of the ick. By afternoon, I had energy I hadn’t felt in a month. The next day, we climbed at Les Gaillands, and I felt good. The next day, Friday, we traded babysitting for guided climbing (an excellent deal if you have a good mountain guide with an adorable and extremely well-behaved 3-year-old). Then we spent the weekend on a climbing rampage: five pitches at Vallorcine, dodging ibex on a romp to and up the Aiguillette d’Argentière, and Monday morning, the babysitting-swap climb up the Brévent on the Frison-Roche.

Perhaps I’ll be back in Colorado on schedule now.

Today, I’m cowering indoors again, but for a non-frustrating reason: I’m sunburned from spending yesterday learning alpine climbing techniques on Pointe Lachenal. The reflection off the Vallée Blanche sunburned the insides of my nostrils and the grooves of my ears, but no tears here. This is what I came to Chamonix to do.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the fifth in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Workation France: To Hamburg and the North Sea, Part 1

When your German friends invite you to take a walk on the beach, ask how many tens of kilometers they plan to march before you answer.

We took a break from our workation* in Chamonix to visit our dear friends Uwe and Frauke in Hamburg last weekend.

Lambs (and sheep!) on Hamburger Hallig

Lambs (and sheep!) on Hamburger Hallig

Uwe decided that after spending so much time in the Alps, we were due for a trip to the beach, and I agreed. He planned a weekend at the North Sea that included a stroll on the beach, a hike across tidal flats to an island, and dining on a local specialty that’s only available at this time of the year.

Friday evening we left Hamburg’s luxe riverside homes behind for the area near Sylt, which Uwe said was one of the most beautiful (and popular) islands in Germany. But before we headed to the island, we had a mandatory stop at Hamburger Hallig–but not for hamburgers. For lamb.

Uwe had been talking about the “nice, juicy little lambs” since I asked if we could visit. They’re special, he said, because they feast on grasses watered by the high tide and therefore take on the sea’s salty flavor.

As we approached the restaurant–and unassuming farmhouse perched hopefully atop the highest part of a hallig, a German word for the miniscule islands just off the coast–Frauke and Uwe had a quick debate in German and told us we were going to pay to drive right up to the farmhouse, even though they usually walk or rent bikes. Was Uwe too anxious for his juicy lamb to hike or bike? The wind was howling off the sea, so I was happy not to pedal a bike into it and said so. “Oh, the wind is not a problem,” Frauke said. “But if it rains, we don’t want to have to walk all the way back here in it.”

This should have been my first clue about the hearty constitution of my German friends and the activities and weather they think are “not a problem.”

Jeremy in the wind on the North Sea

Jeremy in the wind on the North Sea

So as not to miss the juiciest part of the lamb, the leg, we rushed in just as the buffet began, quickly ordered beers and apfelschorles, and snuck around the hostess who told us to wait, a large group would get to go before us. The lamb was juicy, and it was available in every cut and cooked in every conceivable way. I woffed down most of two plates before calling it quits–Uwe ate three and cleaned his plate each time.

Uwe and Frauke swore us to secrecy about their juicy little lambs and made me promise not to publish the name of the restaurant. It is little known, out of the way, and only hosts the lamb buffet on Friday nights for a few weeks in June and July. If you absolutely must know, drop me a line.

The next day, we headed to Sylt for a “nice walk along the beach.” The wind was still howling, but the sun was out.

Uwe and Frauke shooting pictures of the Red Cliffs on Sylt

Uwe and Frauke shooting pictures of the Red Cliffs on Sylt

Still, when we arrived at Sylt’s main city, Westerland, to take a bus to the northern elbow of the strip of island, Jeremy and I ducked into a shop with a big The North Face logo to buy more clothes. I regretted leaving my fleece pullover and gloves in Chamonix; Jeremy regretted not bringing a hat. We both wondered at the drones of German tourists in capri pants shrugging off the cold gale at their favorite beach resort.

Properly equipped with warmer clothes and a lunch of fish sandwhiches (local specialities include tiny shrimp and a type of pickled herring–both delicious!), we headed onto the beach where Jeremy and I shoved our gloveless hands into our pockets against the wind and Uwe and Frauke promptly removed their shoes.

“It’s not cold–it’s quite warm in the sand, Jenn!”

“It’s good for your feet to walk in the sand!”

“Yes, the sand massages your feet!”

Now, let’s just pause here. I’m not as tough as most of my friends, but that speaks to the company I keep more than my own wimpiness. I’m not afraid of cold–I ski and ice climb all winter, and before those sports were available to me, I always rode my bikes through the winter. But I survive my cold-weather activities because I dress appropriately and don’t do crazy things like take my shoes and socks off.

So what did I do? I took my shoes and socks off. And that’s when the march began.

We marched at least 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) down the beach, in the sand, back to Westerland.

The homes in Kampen have roofes made of reed, which is traditional in northern Germany.

The homes in Kampen have roofs made of reed, which is traditional in northern Germany.

That doesn’t include the side trip to see some of Germany’s most expensive homes, in Kampen; we ended up on the mainland side of Sylt before heading back to the sea side, thus crossing the island’s width twice. We ate our yummy fish sandwiches, stopped for coffee and creamy cakes once. Walking so far on the rough sea was an incredible experience, but by 8 or 9 p.m., dragging my exfoliated feet and licking salt off my lips, I declared that I would walk no further unless someone put dinner in my belly.

Even after dinner (more of the tasty tiny shrimp with a huge organic salad) we had an hour-long walk/run to make the midnight train out of Westerland. When we arrived back at our flat after 1 a.m., I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to get up at 7:30 to make it to our walking tour to the hallig of Oland. But if I wanted to walk to an island–and I did–I had no choice.

*This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the fourth in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Workation France: What to Bring

Five things you should bring from home, four of which I’ve spent way too much money on since we’ve arrived in France but are essential for a workation*:

Sunscreen: You can’t skate out of a pharmacy or even a grocery store with sunscreen for under 10 euro, about $13.85 at the current exchange rate. Even tiny travel-size bottles are pricey, and in the haute montagne, you need it. (Actually, I picked up my toastiest sunburn at the crag at Les Gaillands, in the valley! It’s a south-facing cliff.)

Envelopes: For a vacation, you don’t need envelopes, but for a workation, you probably will need to send something back home via snailmail. It would have been easy to bring along a handful of envelopes from home. Instead, I bought a pack of 50 here for what I could have bought 500 for at Office Depot.

Saline Solution: We ran out of saline solution today, and I discovered why the big bottles of the stuff are behind the counter at the pharmacy here: You could get a nice bottle of wine for less. It’s possible that I was gouged for buying on one of the main streets in touristy Chamonix, but fact is, it’s so pricey I’d get laser surgery to save money if I lived here.

Trail Mix: I like to eat trail mix when I hike and climb; it’s part of my real-food trail energy regime. If you shop at Whole Foods, it’s easy to become a trail-mix junkie and sample many varieties in the bulk section for a fair sum. In France, though, you’ll either pay a lot for a tiny bit of pitiful mix, or you’ll pay a lot to put the raw materials together yourself. A big bag of my favorite mix would be more useful at this point than an extra shirt or socks.

Energy Bars: These don’t exist here. If you can’t hike or climb without your favorite Clif Bar or Lara Bar or whatever, you’d be wise to bring a box or three, depending on your voracity.

And now one thing you don’t need to bring to France: your health insurance card. Well, if you end up in the hospital you might need it…anyway, if you go to a doctor here, like I did last week, you’ll have to pay cash up front and submit to insurance later. In my case, a visit to the doctor put me out 60 euro, which is less than it costs me to see a doctor back home since I have the crappy insurance that the self-employed are forced to buy in the U.S. Last year, my little brother went to a doctor in Zermatt, which was 35 Swiss francs (pretty close to the same amount in dollars). Perhaps here, the health-care industry is making bank on saline solution and sunscreen rather than sick people.

*This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the third in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

The Alps, the laissez-faire way

The Brévent, from Chamonix

The Brévent, from Chamonix

If you live away from the mountains, the only time you hear about a climbing accident is if something big goes down on Mt. Everest, or if the Today Show picks up an amazing tale of survival from a fourteener hike gone wrong. But when you live in the mountains, climbing and skiing accidents appear in your local news on a regular basis.

We can’t easily read the local news here, but we heard helicopters all day on Friday. We woke to the rat-tat-tat in the morning, saw them when we hiked on the northwest side of the valley in the afternoon, and by evening, when they were still going, we wondered whether they were having an epic training day or if something bad went down.

There was an accident. Jeremy spotted a blurb about it Saturday on ESPN:

“Karine Ruby, a former Olympic snowboarding champion who had been training to become a mountain guide, died Friday in a climbing accident on Mont Blanc. She was 31. Ruby was roped to other climbers when she and some members of the group fell into a deep crack in the glacier on the way down the mountain…”

But we didn’t have time to ponder it, because–timely–that evening we were sorting gear and loading our packs to spend the next day out with guide Michael Silitch learning how to travel safely on the glaciers above Chamonix.

Last year we climbed the Cosmiques Arete with Michael (the photos he snapped along the way are here–by the way, how do guides take such great photos and give clients safe belays at the same time?!?). Neither of us have experience with glacier travel, so this year we wanted to learn safety basics so we can start doing easy alpine climbs on our own.

Sunday morning broke sunny atop the Aiguille du Midi cable car station, and from the observation decks we could see that the Vallée Blanche was crawling with people.

The view from the Aiguille du Midi

The view from the Aiguille du Midi

Across the valley, another swarm was either switchbacking up to or skiing down from a bowl on Mont Blanc du Tacul–which Michael pointed out was an avalanche terrain trap, and then directed our attention to the rows of tipping seracs most of the way up the mountain above. As if on cue, we heard a roar from another direction and spotted an avalanche below us on the Midi, and as it thundered on, Michael explained that seracs can fall at any time, day or night.

Great. Or as they like to say here, super.

We spiked up and tied in for the daunting trip down a ridge from the station to the Vallée Blanche. The soft snow started balling up under my crampons, and Michael pointed out that they’re really only good for ice climbing, not alpine climbing. And by the way, our ice axes aren’t quite right either. Gah. I need to make friends with someone at Grivel or Petzl.

Michael whipped out a snow probe and staked out a safe area on a flat spot between the ridge and the bergschrund (the Vallée Blanche is a glacier). Below, the climbers and skiers became the subjects of our class. A few people were doing everything right (“See that team of two? They’re far apart, and there’s no slack in the rope.”) but it seemed like a lot of people were doing everything wrong (“These people have way too much slack in the rope; those people are standing around too close together; that guy is alone without skis.”).

“Some of the French are kind of laissez-faire about this stuff,” Michael said. Eh, oui: It seemed like there was a lot of scary stuff going on.

Michael pointed out the area where Friday’s accident happened and said there wasn’t much information about it–everyone in the party died–so it was tough to analyze what went wrong. There are huge crevasses up there, though, so he wondered if they had gathered too close together on a snow bridge over a crevasse, and when it broke, it took all of them.

As people passed around us on their way to and from the cable car station, we offered bonjours, and Michael sometimes offered a more brotherly salut to other guides. Karine was a friend of his, he said, and a beloved member of the community. She was trying to become the second woman in the exclusive (and quite traditional) Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.

Ridge to the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi

Ridge to the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi

Not to be presumptive, but I suspect it’s best not to dwell on death, even the death of a friend, when your profession is to guide people through deadly terrain on a regular basis, and he didn’t–he moved on to the text topic. But it’s staring you in the face in a place like this. In fact, as Michael was talking us through how to set up rope teams, a party that was heading back up to the station took a long break behind us because one of its members seemed to be having mountain sickness of some sort. He was on his back, rolling around and moaning. One of his buddies put his crampons on for him.

As we transitioned the rope to the appropriate length to walk down onto the glacier, Michael said the man probably had cerebral edema.

“Really?” we said.

“Yeah, people come up from Paris and go right to 12,000 feet,” he said. Ah. Just like back home in Colorado, where people fly in from Chicago to ski at 11,000 feet and end up with Acute Mountain Sickness.

Clouds had been building from the Italian side of the range all day, but by mid afternoon, gray clouds rose from the Chamonix side, too.

How to haul someone out of a crevasse: Learn to build pulleys

How to haul someone out of a crevasse: Learn to build pulleys

A few snowflakes blew in as I puzzled over the pulley system Michael had built to rescue his pack–our faux fallen climber. I’m extra paranoid about lightning after an experience we had last summer in the Indian Peaks, and we all thought it would be good to avoid yet another mountain hazard.

Back at the Aiguille du Midi station, we packed up or covered our sharp objects for the journey back down to Chamonix. The tourists are aggressive when queueing up for the cable cars (even to people carrying ice axes), and at 125 lbs., I’m often jostled about by the crowd once we’re squeezed into the car. On one leg of this journey, I was backed up to a large man wearing a tiny pack, which you’re supposed to remove before you get in the cable car. He removed his pack while I was pressed against it. The French couple next to me giggled in shock and gestured for me to jab him with my elbows. I wished my glacier-inappropriate ice axe was accessible. The tourists, it turns out, are the final hazard you have to deal with when climbing in the Alps.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the second in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.