Take Me Back To Swaziland!

It’s true that a job, and not my backpacking itinerary, brought me to Swaziland. In fact, I had originally planned on traveling though more of the Asian continent after my time in Nepal. But the opportunity arose to work on a short-term project on the ground in Manzini, so I made a “quick diversion” to the bottom of Africa to put my MPH to work for a few weeks.

Driving into Swaziland.

Driving into Swaziland.

Swaziland has the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Swaziland’s sunsets leave you breathless. Photos really don’t do them justice.

It's pretty here.

It’s pretty here.

It's pretty here, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore here.

Lovely colors, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore.

Since May 2012, I’ve been working with a small team to help a Swazi organization design a sexual/reproductive health program that engages sex workers. We’ve been supporting the organization remotely, but the program recently received funding (with promises of more), so it made sense to make a field visit and take the first steps towards implementation (woohoo!). You can read about Ungakwenta! here.

Office shot! It's amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

Office shot! It’s amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

HIV testing campaign messages. Yay Public Health. Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

A man knows – to be the best, he has to test! Woo, Public Health Messaging! Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

I spent 11 days in Swaziland. It was not enough. I LOVE IT THERE. My colleague Matt and I put in long, productive, awesome days with the SRH program, and squeezed in a bit of wilderness adventuring whenever we could. It was phenomenal. Not only did I get to do the work I love, in the field, with amazing, dedicated people, but I learned so much about Swazi life and culture, met so many interesting expats and locals, and saw how my life might look if I worked here full-time. And, of course, I got to hike through crocodile-infested swamps and climb giant granite mountains and see a buncha crazy animals and finally eat fresh fruit all day instead of rice (sorry, Nepal. I don’t want rice for a loooong time because of you.)

This is Nyonyane Mountain, or Executioner Rock, so called because one upon a time, criminals were hurled from the peak. We climbed it in between rain storms.

This is Nyonyane Mountain in Milwane, or Executioner Rock, so called because once upon a time, criminals were thrown from the peak to their deaths. We climbed it in between rain storms.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on one of our hikes.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on the Nyonyane hike in Milwane. The hike took us through dense, jungle-y swamps. I thought I might die.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane Reserve, where we hiked up our first mountain.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane on our hike up Nyonyane.  More animal photos to come in Swaziland Post #2.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park…

Matt up ahead, hiking Nyonyane Mountain or Executioner Rock.

Matt up ahead, preparing to climb Nyonyane Mountain, which you can see in the distance.

Swaziland is a tiny country, with a soft, gentle, rolling beauty. The area where I lived and worked is lush, with steep green mountains covered in giant boulders that appear to simply pop out of the earth. It was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and though it was the rainy season, we were lucky to have mostly clear, hot weather. The mangoes and papayas and pineapples were the best I’ve ever had. There were amazing animals and so much nature for them to enjoy, in several huge wildlife reserves throughout the country. The culture is rich and proudly held by its people. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Everything moves slowly.

Matt and I stayed in an expat's house right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It's the second largest monolith in the world.

Matt and I stayed with a colleague right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It’s the second largest monolith in the world.

I hiked up Sibebe with Ben, whom we stayed with while working in Swaziland. This is Ben's arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

I climbed Sibebe with Ben, who is awesome and let us stay in his beautiful house while we worked and played in Swaziland. This is Ben’s arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

Hiking Sibebe.

Hiking Sibebe.

Sibebe again. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland. So glorious.

Sibebe. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland (after work or on weekends only, of course!). So glorious.

Interesting rock formation on Sibebe.

Aliens did this.

The third hike we did

The third hike we did was in Malolotja, a large wilderness reserve with tons of beautiful animals and its fair share of sky porn.

The hills are alive!...with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

The hills are alive…with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas. They were everywhere in Malolotja.

Of course, for all its beauty and kindness, Swaziland is not without its challenges. It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Serious public health and development problems are apparent everywhere. There are issues with dependency on foreign aid. But while all of this is important to know and understand, it’s just as critical to recognize all that Swaziland has to offer, to learn just how intricate and interesting the culture and history are, and to develop a well-rounded awareness of how things in this country really work. And I only just scraped the surface, but I can tell you with confidence that I would absolutely love to live and work there for a while. And I just might try to, when I start job-hunting later this spring.

My fellow hikers in Malalotja.

My fellow hikers in Malolotja, admiring what beauty lay before us. Although, while those hills are pretty, they’re a b*tch to climb when it’s 99 degrees out. Just sayin’.

As a final note, I took a million sunset photos in Swaziland because they were the most intense sunsets I’d ever seen. The Swazi sky alone may be reason enough for me to move there. And though sunset photos seem a bit cliché by now, I feel I have to share at least a few. So here’s a random sampling of my shots.

Almost Heaven, Himalayas

The highlight of my time in Nepal was an eight-day hike into the Himalayas, alone but for my guide, Bijay. Bijay lives outside of Kathmandu but spends the majority of the year in the wilderness, trekking or guiding or staying at his parents’ “mountain home” in remote Western Nepal (you have to hike for several days to reach it; there are no roads). I met Bijay on Couch Surfing, he gave me a good deal, and he turned out to be a fabulous guide. Here is the link to his personal trekking website.

After discussing about a thousand trekking options with Bijay, I decided to hike to Tsergo Ri Peak in Langtang National Park. This trek involved a 9-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, 6 straight days of wilderness hikin’ for a total of 80+km on foot, and another 9-hour bus ride back to the capitol.

Langtang is well known in Nepal for its beauty and environmental diversity. Its extreme variations in topography enable several different vegetation zones to exist within just a few kilometers of each other – one of very few places in the world where this happens. It was really cool hiking through a thick, damp jungle-y forest one day, the next day through alpine timberline, the next through a red-bush-filled prairie, and the next over a snowy, rocky, barren, Mars-like terrain.

It’s hard to organize this post, because the entire experience covered 8 days and I want to share exactly 8 million stories and experiences with you. But that’s not possible, so I’ll try to condense and be succinct and also show you several yak pictures because I know that will make you happy.

Yak pictures make everyone happy.

IMG_5515Anyway. The trekking adventure began with the bus ride to the village near the trailhead, at the edge of Langtang. This village is only 36 km, as a bird flies, from KTM. The road that leads there is 140 km long. It took our bus around 9 hours to make the drive. It was, for all intents and purposes, a 9-hour-long adrenaline rush. I was completely and utterly exhausted by the time we arrived, even though I’d just been sitting all day. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. But mostly terrifying. Dad, maybe you shouldn’t read the next few paragraphs.

Bijay and I boarded a public bus and departed from KTM at 7:30 AM. Within a half hour we were out of KTM Valley, heading up into the mountains on a single-lane road. Another half hour and the road turned to dirt, and dust, and rocks. Big ass rocks. And no shoulder on either side. On one side, a steep wall of earth. On the other, a plummeting drop far, far, far down. Now the cliff’s on your left. Now it’s on your right. Now left, now right again. Up and down the mountainsides, up and down, between 1400 and 4000 meters altitude, crazy switchbacks all the way. You’re maybe going 20-30 miles an hour, but it seems mighty fast. Your bus is loaded, packed with people, with bags and boxes, with a huge metal wheel (?), with sacks of grain, with lumber. Bijay tells you there will also occasionally be a cage of chickens stuffed in the aisle, or a goat.

IMG_5750The bus is full, with people standing in between the seats, and there are between 5 and 15 people riding on the roof at any given time, as well. You can see their shadow when the sun is just right, the silhouettes of teenage Nepali boys clinging to your and 60 other peoples’ bags strapped to the roof. The bus careens down the road, kicking up dust, hitting and rolling over rocks you think are just a bit too big to be safe. The bus tips precariously as it rolls over the boulders, just far enough onto the edge of its wheels, cliff-side, to make your heart skip a beat. Again, and again. You clutch the seat in front of you, which is broken and falling hard against your knees.

IMG_5698You are torn between admiring the beauty of the terraced farmland below you and panicking at the thought of the bus rolling down the hill, which seems wholly possible with one false move of the driver. Bollywood and Indian rap songs play loudly, on loop. The girl in front of you vomits out the window three times. Two boys in the back are passed puke bags, as well. The winding road is single lane all the way, and really a bit too narrow for the large bus. But it’s the only road there is. You realize this is going to be one hell of a ride.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Just 70km outside of Kathmandu, my Nepali guide stopped recognizing the language spoken by the people living there. The culture had completely changed. If you read about it, Nepal is actually crazily diverse. All the more reason to get out of KTM! I wrote in my journal after the long bus ride: “The people live so remotely in their little stone or metal houses, placed here and there amidst steep mountainsides of terraced crops…no roads but the ‘main’ one…near Tibet, just 25km away as a bird flies. Police checkpoints every 15 minutes of driving. Buddhist area – prayer flags and stupas everywhere.”

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

The next four days, Bijay and I trekked into the wilderness, away from electricity, away from dirt roads, away from people, away from civilization. Into the wild, into the forest and icy Himalayan air, into these massive mountains, into Sherpa country and nearly into Tibet. (Then we hiked back out in two more days. Much less epic, but still amazing).

IMG_5785IMG_5767Here’s part of my journal entry after the first day: “…a beautiful and interesting hike. All the while, alongside a bright blue, freezing glacial river. Swift and powerful. Subtropical forest. Steep rocky trail covered in donkey and cow droppings. Passed a shepherd’s makeshift home as well as a few traditional mountain villages. Houses of rocks and mud. Monkeys everywhere. /…Tomorrow we’re going to end the day at a ‘big village’ of about 300 people. No roads – only walking in and out. Unbelievable how remote everything is. Bijay said this is nothing; some people in remote areas of Western Nepal can only get food by helicopter. /…At least a few hikers/guides die or go missing doing this trek every year. One was a 25-year-old woman from Colorado, missing since 2010, no one has any idea what happened to her. She simply disappeared. This fall, a guide died by falling off a cliff, though they think he may have been drunk…  Constant reminders to play it safe, never underestimate this nature. The mountains will always win. It’s humbling…”

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You can just see the red-and-white-striped peak of Tsergo Ri in the distance, my ultimate destination!

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

The second day of hiking, we reached Langtang Village at over 3,000 meters, the point at which you begin to feel the effects of altitude. From my journal: “…In a Tibetan language, Lang=yak and Tang=home (this village is home to yaks). / …Prayer flags everywhere. Walk clockwise around the stupas. Vast valley below us, snow-capped peaks all around. Huge no-name waterfalls. Yaks and monkeys. Red berry trees. I stood outside when we got here, watching the thick clouds roll up towards me from below, covering the Buddhist flags in a white haze. I can’t believe I’m here…”

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A frigid Himalayan dusk and my fabulous new Aussie friend Priya, the only other woman I met on my trek.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

The third day, we reached Kyanjin Gumpa, a town near the end of a broad valley, at 3,870 meters. I wrote, “It is freezing in this mountain village. Freezing and unbelievably beautiful.” I did not feel my hiking ability had diminished due to altitude, though perhaps I slowed down a bit between Langtang Village and Kyanjin Gumpa. However, I could tell I was way, way high up when I tried to sleep. Breathing in bed was almost painful – mostly, I think, because the air was icy, icy cold, and before acclimatizing, you have to breathe deeply to get enough of that precious O2 into your lungs. The cold air woke me up a little bit more each time I took a breath. Trying to keep my head inside my sleeping bag was also ineffective, as this was suffocating after just a few minutes.

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See that reddish mountain in the distance, on the left? I climbed that.

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Another Mani wall.

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GIANT YAK.

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Another view of the mountain I will soon climb, as well as a stone structure housing a prayer wheel, spun by the rushing water of a hidden stream below.

I should mention at this point that the air in my bedroom was ice cold because the trekking lodges Bijay and I stayed in along the route were made of rough stone, uninsulated, and unheated. You could often see through the gaps in the stone walls to the frozen ground and windblown yaks outside. The only warmth we received was during mealtimes, and then only in the lodge kitchens from the small wood or gas fires used to prepare food. And starting on the second day of trekking, temperatures fell near or below freezing from early evening until mid morning.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

It was really cold.

It was really cold here.

A little explaining: along major trekking routes in Nepal, there is at least one small guesthouse located every 4-8 hours of hiking. These guesthouses are staffed by locals year-round, paid for by trekking fees. The accommodation is very basic, usually involving a single bed in a simple room and an often cold shower or bucket bath. Hot meals are available, but in the off-season, when I did my trek, options may be limited. After all, every single item of food (and everything else, for that matter) must be carried in on foot from the nearest town, which becomes progressively farther and farther away the higher into the remote Himalayas you climb.

Along the trek, we frequently crossed paths with local people carrying MASSIVE baskets of goods up the mountain. I always felt super lame when we’d pass a little old man with a towering basket of firewood or canned food or water bottles strapped to his back and around his forehead, as I panted and sweated up the trail with my much lighter pack, its name-brand hip-straps snugly fitted to maximize comfort… Another effect of seeing these porters was that I never, ever wasted any food along the way. I would just cry if I spent my days lugging 60- or 70-pound containers of food up the mountains only to see a dumbass tourist toss out half her plate of rice.

Bijay told me that during high season, the guesthouses may become so crowded with trekkers that you have to wait hours for a meal. My trek was in mid-December, at the tail end of the shoulder season, and I was pleased that I wasn’t constantly surrounded by other people. I love hiking because it takes me into the woods, away from society, into places where I can be present with nothing but nature and my thoughts and huge, vast, sprawling landscapes not even worth attempting to photograph for all their glory and beauty and intensity and otherworldliness.  Also, after physically strenuous hiking all day, the last thing I would want to do is have to navigate a social situation involving a small kitchen packed with tourists from all over the world, all vying for food and heat from the fire. I only met a few other people along my trek, and this was wonderful because I really got to know a few of them, which I doubt would have happened if there were many more of us out there. However, throughout the entire trek, I didn’t run into any other Americans, I met very few women, and I didn’t meet any other woman trekking alone but for her guide.

The view from Kyanjin Gumba.

The view from the small mountain village of Kyanjin Gumpa, 40km from the nearest road.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumba.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumpa.

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Kyanjin Gumpa, 3870m.

IMG_5479 IMG_5483 IMG_5476The fourth day, Bijay and I awoke early and quickly ate porridge in the freezing and dark final moments of Himalayan pre-dawn. Our goal on this day was to summit Tsergo Ri, a 4,875m peak overlooking Kanyjin Gumpa, its top covered in waving prayer flags and offering a stunning 360-degree panorama of snow-capped peaks all around, some nearly 8,000m tall. I had never been that high before – my record was just below 4,000m in Colorado, and even that, I wasn’t totally sure about (I had to turn back on that hike due to lightning above the tree line, so I don’t know exactly how high I made it). But I really, really wanted to make it to the top of Tsergo Ri. I prayed the altitude wouldn’t do me in before I summited the clouded peak.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey peak up ahead.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey beast up ahead.

Bijay and I set out for the mountain just as the sun was coming up, though the sky was dark and foreboding, and the wind strong. The water in my Camelbak froze after just a few minutes of hiking. Thankfully Bijay was smart enough to fill his canteen with warm water, so we were able to share that on the way up. We climbed silently. Soon, we reached the 4,000m mark, after which I noted that every step I took was a new personal altitude record. And every step was slower than the last. I didn’t feel dizzy or faint, but I felt winded and tired. I reassessed my physical state every few minutes, knowing that I’d have to turn back if I started to feel altitude sickness. Happily, I never did, I think because I went so slowly. That said, we still made it to the peak in 3.5 hours, though Bijay said it usually takes at least 4. I consider that a win.

A few views from along the hike up:

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Nearly there...

Nearly there…

About the hike to the peak, I wrote in my journal: “Extremely steep dirt trails, near vertical but no plants or trees to hold on to. Windy and icy cold all the way. I felt like a snail. Wind blowing violently. Snow made visibility very poor.”

About an hour from the peak, it began to snow. The wind whipped the clouds around us, obscuring our visibility. For the rest of the climb, I couldn’t see farther than about 3 meters in front of me – just enough to catch the blue of Bijay’s hat up ahead. The hiking was safe, as we were simply going up, not along a cliff or through a forest. We were climbing up a huge field of big rocks, using hands and feet, and at times pulling ourselves up very steep, barren dirt paths. Exhausting. I had one of those brief mental fallbacks where I took stock of how it felt to be there in that snowstorm, at that altitude, not being able to see any view at all – “This sucks! Why do I do this? Why do I think this is fun? What is wrong with people, that we do these tortuous things for fun?!” – but then, suddenly, we were at the top.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

Couldn't see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

Couldn’t see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

We sat behind a boulder in an attempt to shelter ourselves from the whipping wind and the stinging snow. We huddled and we shivered and we laughed at the fact that we worked our asses off to climb to the top of the world, only to be caught in a white whirlwind that kept us from seeing anything around or below us. The fact that I may have physically and mentally pushed myself harder than ever before, for no reason other than the challenge itself, made me feel a bit silly. But miraculously, within about 10 minutes, the snow suddenly stopped. The cloud around us blew to another peak across the valley. And we saw the vast, vast earth below and around us on every side.

IMG_5430 IMG_5399IMG_5428 IMG_5413I was so excited by the view that I actually started running and skipping back and forth across the summit, snapping photos and joyfully exclaiming expletives. But very quickly, the altitude reminded me that I really shouldn’t be running and jumping or doing anything faster than a snail’s pace at this point, so I surrendered my physical enthusiasm and simply stood in awe, munching a frozen piece of chapati and trying to keep my fingers from going completely numb. “The Himalayas are f*cking huge.”

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Above the clouds…

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Before we began our descent (“I felt like shit most of the way down”), I pocketed a tiny pebble from the highest point on the peak of Tsergo Ri. I am not really a sentimental person, and I certainly don’t collect things, but this mountain was not only my biggest physical feat ever but is also higher than the highest mountain in the Alps and the highest I may ever climb. I hope it’s not, but you never know.

Rocky trek down over 1,000m...

Rocky trek down over 1,000m…please excuse my finger, the goin’ was rough.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

Side note: A 33-year-old Swedish personal trainer I met in Kyanjin Gumpa also climbed Tsergo Ri during the snowstorm. He’d previously summited Everest Base Camp and Mt. Kilimanjaro. He had the body of a god and was clearly born to overcome all sorts of physical challenges in his life. But he told me that Tsergo Ri was the most challenging climb he’d ever done, due to the weather conditions and the rapid increase in altitude (we climbed up over 1000m [after already starting at 3870m above sea level] in a matter of hours as opposed to taking a few days to gradually reach higher altitudes, like on Everest). So, this made me feel pretty empowered, as a smallish American woman who is certainly not a gloriously chiseled Swedish personal trainer and certainly not built by the gods to champion all types of incredible physical feats in life. I JUST REALLY FRIGGIN’ LOVE MOUNTAINS! IT WAS SO EPIC!

The next two days, Bijay and I made our way back down through all the vegetation zones, starting in snowy Kyanjin Gumpa, hiking along scenic ridges, and across glacial streams, to the warm and sunny village where we began nearly a week earlier. Then came the 9-hour heart-stopping bus ride back to my host family’s house in Kathmandu, where I gleefully took a real hot shower and hand-washed my absolutely disgusting trekking clothes.

View from the way down.

View from the way down. You can see a squiggly road on the mountain across the valley. That’s the way home…

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Almost back down to the town!

IMG_5355I miss the Himalayas already. My brief journal entry from the final day of the trek reads, “Trying to reflect on how I feel but maybe it’s too soon…I feel like I just completed something amazing, like I am so much physically stronger than I could ever have imagined, and that I really want a good, long, hot yoga class.”

By now, I’ve had some more time to think about the trek, but I’ll just share one brief note on my reflections. Since August, I have written in my journal, “Actually, this was the most incredible thing I have ever done in my life” on three separate occasions.  I think it’s safe to say 24 turned out to be a pretty fab year.

Here’s another yak photo.

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Nepal in Photos

Nepal in Photos, MINUS the Himalayas – those shots deserve their own post!

Most of my time in Kathmandu, I lived with the Pandeys, a Nepali host family I connected with via a British friend of a German friend. My Nepali family resides in a big brown house just outside the city, close to the famous Swoyambhu (Monkey Temple!).

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Prayer wheels at Swoyambhu.

I loved my time with the Pandeys. I really feel like I have a family in Nepal after living with them for just a month.

In line with Nepali tradition, my Aama (mother) gave me a garland of marigolds and fed me three spoonfuls of curd as I departed their home on my last day.

In line with Nepali tradition, my Aama (mother) gave me a garland of marigolds and fed me three spoonfuls of curd as I departed their home on my last day.

My host brothers and me. And why yes I AM wearing traditional Nepali clothes! My very neon Christmas gift from the Pandeys.

My host brothers (aged 16 and 12) and me. And why yes I AM wearing traditional Nepali clothes! My very neon Christmas gift from the Pandeys.

My activities at the Pandeys’ involved eating an unbelievable amount of home-cooked Nepali goodness, helping my bhaiharu (brothers) with their English, hand-washing my clothes, chatting about Nepal and America, laughing about table manners and idioms and cultural opposites, drinking countless cups of masala milk tea, and making daily excursions to explore different areas of Kathmandu Valley and beyond.

Laundry day. Aama and I would spend a few hours on the roof, she efficiently laundering the clothes of her four-person family, and I t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y scrubbing my few totally wrecked backpacking outfits.

Laundry day. Aama and I would spend a few hours on the roof, she efficiently laundering the clothes of her four-person family, and I t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y scrubbing my few totally wrecked backpacking outfits.

I am so grateful that I opted to stay with a host family in Nepal instead of in a hostel, because I feel I was able to learn so much more about Nepali culture, and also enjoy a familiar atmosphere when I came “home” every evening or after my longer excursions around the country. For the first time since I began traveling, my days became somewhat predictable. I knew what to expect in the evenings; I knew where I would sleep every night; I knew what the food was like and didn’t have to worry about making it myself. I got to know the family dynamic and the flow of the days in their home. Though the structure that existed in my new home was at times a challenge after deciding my own time for months, it was also welcomed, as it allowed me to feel “at home” and a bit settled for the first time since August.

I found plenty of ways to occupy myself around KTM Valley. I visited numerous Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas, monasteries and abbeys, the botanical gardens, a Buddhist full moon festival, a classical Nepali concert, and several famous medieval city squares boasting beautiful and ancient spiritual structures and statues. I learned how to eat all my meals with my right hand, how to jump on and off a moving bus (or tempo or van), how to say a few key Nepali phrases, and how to haggle for jewelry and yak wool shawls like a pro (just walk away…just walk away). I reveled in being in such a dynamic setting once again, surrounded by warm-hearted people and extreme cultural and religious diversity, keeping every moment interesting as I worked to navigate my way through this totally new and foreign part of the world.

And now, too many photos!

Magic on Kramerspitze

The main reason I decided to go back into Germany from the Czech Republic was that I had been promised an Alps trek, which has been a dream of mine since reading Heidi when I was probably 7 years old. (Also, of course, I wanted to meet David, the allegedly wonderful twinsy of my friend Robin, and promiser of said Alps excursion.)

I hope this post is as epic as I’ve been building it up to be. I think I’ll just start with a photo – the first glimpse of up-close, snowy Alps from the train speeding towards our mountain-town destination, where the trailhead is located.

Yes, yes, a million times, yes!

David and I decided to climb Kramerspitze, which could supposedly be completed in a day if you started early enough for it to still be light out during your descent.

The hike we did starts at the lower righthand side near the town. See all the switchbacks? That’s the way up. The peak is where it says “Kramerspitz” (how Bavarians spell it). Then we followed the snowy ridge to the left, and down the mountain on the next dotted red line.

The afternoon before our hike, David and I took a train from Munich to Garmisch, a small town nestled in the snow-capped Alps on the Germany-Austria border. We’d booked a hostel for the night, with plans to begin our Kramerspitze climb around 8:00 the next morning.

We arrived to the hostel with about ½ hour of daylight remaining, but decided we wanted to do a quick, shorter hike that very day, known as Partnachklamm. David’s “spare grandma”, Dee, had recommended this hike, which took us into a deep gorge in a mountainside, through caves and rugged rock tunnels, alongside a roaring, icy stream.

We did the hike in the dark.

It was incredible.

I had two headlamps; a tiny bit of dusky light was still showing through the trees by the time we got to the trailhead; and the trail was clear and quite easy, so there was little risk involved in making this a night hike. In the beginning, I wished it was daylight, so I could see the true beauty of the gorge and river flowing down from high Alps. But as we hiked on, the experience was just amazing. It was misty and cold; we could look high up above the crevice’s opening and see the mountain stars; we were continuously splashed by waterfalls flowing down right beside the rocky trail; we worked up a sweat climbing, climbing, climbing up into the gorge.

Eventually we took a rickety cable car back down the mountain and hiked back into town.

Obviously my photos from the night hike are no good, but here are a few of them that kind of came out:

Just leaving town; closing in on the trailhead in the fading light.

Almost in the forest at dusk. That huge ski jump was used in the Winter Olympics when they were held here in 1936.

Oh, beautiful Alps. Thank you for letting me gleefully climb all over you, at all hours of the day and night!

Yeah, no photos in the actual gorge. You can Google Partnachklamm for daytime pics, if you feel so inclined.

Anyway, back to the purpose of this post: Kramerspitze!

David and I woke up early and dressed in silence, packing our Camelbaks with food, a first-aid kit, extra layers of clothes, and plenty of water. Thankfully David is no more of a morning person than I am. Few words were exchanged, and that was juuuust fine.

After a hearty breakfast and coffee at the hostel, we headed to the Kramerspitze trailhead just on the edge of town.

Hiking, commence! (Note this sign says the summit can be reached in 5 hours. WE DID IT IN 4! Win.)

The trail started out nice and easy, with just a gentle incline.

Don’t be fooled. This is the only “flat” part for the next 9 hours…

Soon we came to this lovely bridge to help us around a giant boulder. In reflection, I feel the first 25 minutes gave me a false sense of security of how well we’d be provided for on the rest of the mountain…

Beautiful view already, and we’re basically still at the bottom!

Serene blue Alps. Only the low ones are blue. The high ones are rocky and white and sparkly and magical.

Soon enough, we came to this:

See that steep crevice? Time for a lil’ scramble!

But of course, this early in the hike, we were generously helped by some metal cables bolted into the rock.

Another amenity only present at the bottom of the hike. I wasn’t kidding about that false sense of security.

Yeah, that was the only cable we encountered. But the scramble continued for some time…

David killin’ it behind me.

We scrambled up near-vertical rocky slopes, like that in the photo above, for about 2 hours. It was physically strenuous, but extremely exhilarating – especially each time we reached a level point and stopped to look around!

Waterbreak! Oh, and not a bad place to take one.

As we climbed higher, the trail became steeper and more narrow, with sharp cliffs opening up to our left. Soon, we came to this memorial for a schoolboy who’d fallen from this point. More than anything, this reminded us to be extra cautious and safe with ourselves today. This is no Appalachia! (Though I do love my rolling blue Appalachians. It’s just that the Alps are very clearly a different beast).

The memorial.

The higher we climbed, the better the view…

Eventually we were up on the first ridge. It was incredible there; totally exposed on both sides, opening up to the vast valley far below and the magnificent Alps all around.

David on the ridge, admiring what magic surrounds him…

And soon, we caught sight of the summit. It looks deceptively close in this picture. The trail actually winds around behind it, with at least another hour of navigating steep, slippery switchbacks and icy patches before hitting the top.

The peak! It looks close, right? It’s not. If you look EXTRA hard, you can barely see the cross at the top, glinting in the sun.

And then, suddenly, the trail turned to ice.

Just a tad slippery.

It was around this time when we spotted a mountain goat! And I had my first Heidi moment, which involves me being ridiculously giddy about where I am and what it looks like all around me – “I’m basically Heidi right now!!!” That’s a Heidi moment.

We carefully hiked along the icy trail, being careful to step down hard – crunch! – along the trail’s outer edges, to ensure our boots had a solid hold in the less icy snow. Before long, we rounded a bend and saw what lie ahead:

You can just make out a faint black line in the snow, all along the right side of that mountain. That’s the trail, running through an avalanche field. (The peak we’re heading for is up and to the left of this photo).

Yep. An avalanche field.

This was my first experience with a hike of this level of risk (it was much more intense than Leggjabrjótur), so at this point, I was extra grateful to have David there. David has experience doing snowy treks, and knew that we could cross the avalanche field with minimal risk because there was just one layer of snow on the mountain. He also taught me how to stop myself if I slipped and started sliding down the side of the mountain (lie on your back, spread your arms, and pray…).  I let him lead the way through this tricky (but epic/ridiculously amazing/”sick” [David’s word of choice]) part of the hike.

A closer view of the avalanche field/trail.

What’s up, guys?! I’m just crossing an avalanche field like it’s a normal Sunday activity! (Slash, peeing my pants).

David scrambling up some snow/ice. This is when we started referring to it as the “trail” (emphasis on the quotation marks). And why yes, he IS in shorts!

This part of the hike wasn’t necessarily steep (at least not in most places), but it took us a long time because of the intense focus required to take every step. Again, we had to stomp down hard to ensure a good foothold; we had to keep our eyes peeled up ahead for icy patches; we had to maintain a safe distance between us to decrease the risk of causing an avalanche or tripping one another. And on the steep bits, the focus was that much more extreme: not only were we already in a risky situation, but now we were also climbing up slippery, icy, sharp rocks with our bare hands.

Even with the intensity of this part of the hike, the views around us made it worth taking the time to stop for photo breaks!

This is a crazy-light photo of David hiking up ahead of me. You can just make him out – a dark patch on the left. This picture gives you a sense of how monstrous these mountains are.

Finally, we made it safely across the avalanche field, and into a saddle between two peaks. We just had a final incline to wind our way up before reaching the summit.

I’m basically Heidi!!! Can you tell how freakin’ happy I am in this moment!?!?

Big snowy rocks and smaller blue mounds surrounding us on every side.

Thanks for the awesome pic, David. That’s me, on top of a mountain, in the middle of the Alps, Germany, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way…feeling so blessed to be present here!

After a short break in the saddle, we were ready to make the final haul. We rounded the back of the peak, and saw that yet another icy patch lie ahead – this time much steeper than the avalanche field, with a sharper drop to one side.

Scary/Worth it.

Up, we climbed…

So close! Just one long icy scramble to go…

Until….

Nailed it.

We reached the summit (about 2000m) after hiking for just over 4 hours. I think we could have done it faster, but I was all about the photo breaks. No point in speeding up such a beautiful mound of earth and rock, anyway!

The. Views. Were. Insane. Just across those mountains to the right? Austria.

The hills are ALIVE, you guys. THEY ARE SO ALIVE!

I really wanted to spin around and sing The Sound of Music, but decided against it since we were on a tiny peak surrounded by nothing but thin air and a long, loooong fall…

What’s up, blackbird? Just enjoying the view? Me too, man. Me too.

In the above photo, that especially tall peak on the far right is Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. David and I originally planned to climb that, but it snowed and made it impassable. That’s ok, though. Kramerspitze most certainly did not disappoint.

Little houses in a tiny town in a big valley far, far below.

Blackbirds on a wire. (The wires were holding in the giant cross that is staked into the peak, known as the Gipfelkreuz).

The cross, and some other hikers who joined us on the peak.

We found lunch to be extremely necessary when we made it to the top…

David eating while I continue to photograph everything in sight (which is a lot).

Finally, after recuperating, eating, and consulting our map, we decided to start the hike down. We opted for a longer, but more gradual route, which ended up taking us about 5 hours. We reached the bottom just as the sun was setting.

The first part of the hike down was still a bit intense, as the rocks were steep and the trail icy.

David making his way down from the peak.

Soon the trail opened up to another incredible, exposed ridge on top of the world. Follow the ridge and you’ll follow the trail…

David on the ridge.

Mountains. Man. Cliff.

Soon we caught an awesome view of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains. This is Eibsee (“-see” means “lake” in German), and it was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight.

Eibsee.

You can see the fading sunlight reflecting on the lake, down below me on the left.

We thought we’d left the snow and ice behind, but rounded a bend and came upon a lengthy slope absolutely covered in slush and ice chunks. It wouldn’t have been too bad if we were going uphill, but coming down was a different story. We both slipped and slid chaotically most of the way down.

Ice is trickier on the downhill.

Not my favorite part of the hike down.

The ice soon ended, and we were met by a gradual decline into a broad meadow of small alpines and lots of mountain goat hoof prints.

What a lovely spot for a bench. Somebody was a thinker!

David and I frolicked in the meadow before re-entering the forest, which came next on the hike down.

Mountain handstands! My version of frolicking. Oh, Alps. Everything about you is just perfect and wonderful.

This can’t be real, right?

Once we left the meadow behind, we hiked downhill, through the woods, for about 2.5 hours. This was still incredible – tall alpines, cool air, lots of shade and sunbeams sliding through the trees, the smell of pine and fresh dirt – but I have to admit, my knees were pretty much ready to quit after the first hour and a half of this steep, wooded descent.

I don’t have many photos from within the forest, as it was quite dark – and the photos would have just been trees, anyhow.

We gradually made our way down series after series of quick switchbacks and steep dirt trail…

Them’s some switchbacks…At this point all I wanted was a mountainbike to take me the rest of the way down!

Finally, as the sun was sliding down behind Zugspitze, we reached the bottom.

The Zugspitze and a darkening sky.

As we walked several kilometers on harsh pavement back to the hostel, I turned around and took a final look at the incredible Kramerspitze.

We climbed that.

Feeling exhausted but satisfied, David and I picked up our things and hopped on the train back to Munich, where we cooked a huge dinner and promptly fell asleep.

What an incredible adventure! Thank you, Kramerspitze, for finally allowing me to realize my Alps-climbing dream. And thanks, David, for sharing such an amazing hike with me! I will most definitely be back for more…