top of the world, ma

A year in the planning, I finally committed to hiking the highest peak in Africa.  It turned out to be far and away the most difficult challenge I’ve ever set myself. After a week of awesome, if exhausting, hiking, the sixteen hour night-into-day to the summit was overwhelming: I saw people with altitude sickness being led down on stretchers, bleeding, hikers turning back due to a crazy windstorm at the final brutal staging post plus, endured a hail storm, a busted iPhone, fire ants, a glorious full moon and many more times that I would care to admit questioning the limits of my physical and mental endurance.  And yet sixteen hours after we first set out, I was back in my tent. Wet, cold, annihilated and utterly elated.

If you’re curious about the poster I’m holding up, Frank is/was a friend of mine. You can discover a bit more about his integral part in my journey HERE.

 

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the inca trail

IMG_3738When I hiked the 100-plus mile Brecon Beacons trail across the hills of Wales a few years ago, I considered it a major achievement. However, it didn’t prepare me one whit for the Peruvian Andes. Distances covered at or close to sea level are almost insignificant when compared to hiking at high altitude. And the Inca Trail is nothing but high-in-the-sky altitude. The elevation begins at 8,500 feet and climbs to just shy of 14,000 feet. That’s 8.5 oxygen-deprived miles up. Despite having spent three days acclimatizing in a rather posh Cusco hotel, I quickly discovered that you don’t so much hike the Inca Trail as survive it. Come along for the ride – it will leave you equally breathless.

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slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.

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a town built on cheese

roquefortRoquefort – both cheese and town – owes its success to a natural disaster. A series of landslides in the plateau some million or so years ago left behind a chaotic heap of rocks riddled with fissures and natural caves, which were ingeniously adapted into cellars for the purpose of making cheese. These cellars lie at the tip of fleurines, or long faults that channel the air flow, creating a constant temperature and humidity year round. (At Societe des Caves – the oldest and largest producer of Roquefort in town – the cellars go eleven stories deep, with fleurines on every level.) To make this King of cheeses, fresh ewes milk is mixed with penicillium roqueforti spores at the dairy and the resulting curds are shaped into large rounds. Before heading to the cellar, each round is needled to create small cavities, allowing for aeration. Deep underground, the cheese is dusted with salt and left to ripen in the bare caves. And here’s where the fleurines works their magic, fostering the growth of microorganisms like the penicillium roqueforti as well as other naturally occurring flora, which slowly ferment the cheese from the inside out, raising its temperature and causing the salt to melt and penetrate down into the cheese. Once ripened, the rounds are wrapped in tin foil by cabanieres, aka “the ladies who wrap the cheese,” and left to mature. Between affinage and maturity, the entire process can take up to twelve months, and the result, if you’ve ever tried real Roquefort, is a uniquely complex and creamy cheese. Little wonder then that Charles VI granted the inhabitants of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon the monopoly on cheese ripening and turned the cellars into a protected landmark. There’s gold in them there fleurines. And it’s blue.

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friday flashsback: unwinding in san diego

Screen-shot-2012-07-16-at-10.14.39-PMWith year-round perfect climate and unparalleled natural beauty, Southern California provides the ideal backdrop for rekindling the spirit and pampering the body.  The recent worldwide spa explosion is exemplified in San Diego,which boasts a bevy of spas with top-of-the-line treatments, first-class services and indulgent amenities.  These luxurious escapes can be found throughout the region nestled against the dramatic Pacific coastline, perched high above the glittering downtown skyline, tucked into the Cuyamaca Mountains and set amidst the serenity of  lush inland canyons. Get ready to soothe your senses, inspire your soul, invigorate your step and energize your spirit. They don’t call this the Sunshine State for nothing. READ MORE (pdf download)

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red, red rocks

IMG_1750Red Rocks, the famous concert venue outside of Denver, was the reason behind my Colorado excursion and the capstone to this trip. (Click the bottom image for greater, groovy, detail.) The natural sandstone amphitheater has long been on my bucket list of places I need to see – and to hear a concert, of course. As a sensory experience and a spectacle it more than lived up to expectations. Firstly, you don’t just show up at the theater to hear some music: you park in a dirt field and then you hike. You hike up. And up and up and up. Red Rocks is set within the confines of a state park – the better to preserve its mystical aloofness. But what makes it so special is also what happens to make it rather inconvenient. An afternoon of steady showers did not help matters. Yet the rain let up just as I laid out ten bucks for a bin liner poncho, and the overcast sky cracked open with beams of sunlight. While the opening band played, the sun began to set and the sheer walls of rock on either side of the seating bowl radiated its flare. Once the stage lights outweighed the ambient light, the sandstone, lit from below, glowed orange, red, and purple. The atmosphere ripened into something otherworldly, like a concert on Mars: the lights of downtown Denver visible on the horizon, a deep blue sky lit up by stars, and the jarring and perfect summer sound of Vampire Weekend pulsing through space.IMG_1737

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spring on a plate

IMG_1693Spring comes on a plate at Sweet Basil, in the heart of Vail village: quinoa and pecan “tabbouleh” and cornmeal dusted Rocky Mountain trout.  Who cares that the morning snow has now turned to rain?IMG_1699

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the road to vail is paved with snow intentions

IMG_1681Apparently even at the unofficial start of summer you’re never very far from a white out. Late spring in Colorado has been a veritable four-season Alpine adventure: sunny and hot in Denver one day, a blizzard on the road to Vail the next. Um, I’d settle for just a touch of spring, please.

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silver queen of the rockies

IMG_1725Georgetown, the “Silver Queen of the Rockies,” is often described as the most picturesque town in Colorado. Founded in 1859, it grew from a small mining camp tucked into a scenic valley to the state’s first great silver mining boom town – and its third most populated city. With more than 200 historic Victorian buildings still standing in the historic downtown, it’s hard to argue about its scenic charm. The most intriguing building of all is the Hotel de Paris, built by a mysterious Frenchman called Louis Dupuy. Richly furnished, it became noted for continental delicacies and the literary bent of its proprietor, a philosopher, social rebel and master chef. Now a museum overseen by the Colonial Dames of America, the building retains its original 1890’s decor and furnishings and is – unfortunately for me today – open by appointment only.hotel de paris

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driving through the continental divide

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the brown palace

IMG_1617Completed in 1892, The Brown Palace Hotel is a remarkable piece of Victorian architecture built in the Italian Renaissance style. It’s the Mile High City’s sandstone grande dame, and harkens back to a time when Denver found itself at the center of a social and economic boom brought on by the gold (and silver) found in them thar hills. In the lobby, your eyes sweep upwards past six tiers of cast iron balconies to a stained glass skylight. The elegant atrium – clad in Mexican onyx – provides the perfect respite for a spot of afternoon tea. Or if that’s not your style, a pair of ornate silver drinking fountains draw their water from the hotel’s own artesian well. It seems that even in the once wild west a good hotel considered practical comforts of paramount importance.

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philopappos panorama

philopappos panorama

That curiosity atop Philopappos Hill turned out to be the marble mausoleum of Philopappos, a prince of the ancient Hellenistic Kingdom of Commegane in upper Syria, which was later annexed by the Roman Empire, and senator under Emperor Trajan. Dating to 116 AD, the tomb, opposite the Acropolis and within the formal boundaries of the city, shows the high position Philopappos had within Athenian society. (Indeed, for the six centuries prior to its building, the area was known as Mouseion Hill, or the Hill of the Muses.) Today, it makes for a relatively solitary uphill stroll to see the two-story monument and take in the unobstructed view of the Acropolis within the context of modern-day Athens. Or, if you’re a Greek teenager, the ideal spot to roll a joint in relative seclusion. As always, click on the panoramic image then click it again for greater detail.

philopappos view

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from the archives: jackson hole strikes a balance

spring creek ranch

Jackson Hole strikes that rare balance between nature and nurture. And for a town of such diminutive proportions that’s better known for its high-octane winter sports than its sedate summers, that’s surprising. But don’t question it; embrace it, and you’ll be richly rewarded by this incredibly scenic little corner of Wyoming. Jackson – the central town in the Jackson Hole valley – is tiny and encircled by the Grand Tetons, the youngest of the Rocky Mountain ranges, in what was once considered frontier territory. Yet one of the many myths it shatters is that size is an accurate reflection of quantity and quality. It’s not. Though the year-round population is a shade under 9,000, the spa choices alone are enough to make you do a double take: organic body treatments at the new LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the ultimate eco-friendly accolade) Hotel Terra‘s rooftop Chill Spa; local ingredients like mesquite-tree powder, sagebrush and red-clay mud put to good use in massages at Spring Creek Ranch‘s Wilderness Adventure Spa, and the inspiration of nearby glacial lakes found in Vichy Waterfall Rituals at Solitude Spa in Teton Mountain Lodge. If your fears are less psychic than political, spending time in Cheney country – the vice president has a place in the area – you’ll be shocked to discover that the valley is like a blue-state island in a sea of red-state dogma. A leaf through the Planet Jackson Hole newspaper gives an accurate portrait of this town’s priorities: Right-to-life ads are far outnumbered by those for the Hemp Film Festival. Read the full story HERE.

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wish list: grub hub

grub hub camp kitchen

Eight years in development, the Grub Hub provides a complete outdoor kitchen, including side tables for cooking and prep, an aluminum table that holds a two-burner camp stove, a molded back table for dining, tower organizer, all terrain tires, and a sink to make clean-up easy as it gets in the wild. The whole contraption sets up in just a few minutes and – even better – folds up into a backpack for easy portability. Light enough to haul across the Pembrokeshire Coast Path yet rugged enough to handle the Salcantay Route, I think I might need this for my next hiking adventure – because, you know, finding my way back to the Four Seasons can be grueling. Check out the unbelievably quick set-up HERE.

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how do you like my island, mr. bond?

speedboat express

Hidden away in my treehouse above the sea, I’ve seen very little of the island of Phuket aside from a brief trip to the market. That changed today in a fit of inspired whimsy: I chartered a speedboat off the eastern side of the island and spent the day freewheeling the Andaman Sea. After dropping anchor for a quick picnic and swim on a stretch of beach at Ko Thanan, we headed north towards Phang-Nga Bay, past dozens of islands created by mainland fault movements. Each island is, in fact, a single, massive limestone monolith, upended vertically and pocked round the base with caves which only reveal themselves during the low tide. (Limestone being soluble, the caves are the result of thousands of years of tidal erosion.) You can take a sea kayak and paddle inside the caves if the tide is right, but my timing was off, so I settled for a pee break masquerading as a swim stop beneath the dramatic cliffs before continuing northwards – in a sudden lashing rain – to Ko Phing Kan, or James Bond Island. Used as the setting for the secret lair of Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun, JBI has become the most famous part of the newly established Ao Phang Nga Marine National Park. In point of fact it’s two islands: the towering Khao Phing Kan, literally “hills leaning against each other,” and Ko Tapu, or “spike island,” where Scaramanga hid the solex laser. If I had to be a super-villain I couldn’t think of a better place to hideaway and plot world domination.

beach at ko thanan

limestone eroding

phang nga bay panorama

james bond island

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