Posts Tagged With: mountains

Mountain biking down an active volcano in Ecuador

At 5897 metres above sea level Cotopaxi, in Ecuador, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Visible from Quito on a clear day, the majestic monolith dominates the skyline from miles around. Its perfect cone and snow-capped peak make it the most stunningly beautiful of all Ecuador’s volcanoes. A popular challenge is to attempt to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi. Beginning from the Refugio at the height of 4800 metres, the brave climbers trudge through deep snow drifts and fight against debilitating altitude in their battle to reach the top. Whilst it is obviously massively rewarding for those who do succeed, the combination of the altitude and the notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that surround Cotopaxi mean that success is far from guaranteed. Unfortunately, many climbers return to Quito disappointed, having had their attempts thwarted. An interesting alternative for those who fancy a bit of adventure, but don’t want to go to the top of the mountain, is to mountain bike down it instead. Having already biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road” a couple of months previously, this was definitely a challenge that I wanted to undertake!

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The Biking Dutchman was established in 1991 and has been running day trips down Cotopaxi ever since. It is easy to see why the company’s success has endured; the ride is utterly exhilarating. The minibuses leave Quito at 7am and make their way to the national park, eventually stopping 4500 metres up the mountain. From here the views of the mountain are breathtaking and provide wonderful photo opportunities. After a safety briefing, we tentatively began our descent. The first 8 kilometres of the ride were all downhill, on a frightening gradient, and we achieved some truly phenomenal speeds. Whilst the ride is suitable for most ability levels, I wouldn’t really recommend it to complete beginners as the bikes were basic and only had front wheel suspension. This meant that maintaining balance was a tricky proposition. I think my knuckles were white from gripping the handlebars so hard! Thankfully, I made it through this stretch with only a couple of minor falls.

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When the descent has been completed the ride slows down and takes on a more sedate nature. After the rush of going downhill and holding on for dear life, it was pleasant to actually do some pedalling and take time to appreciate the bewitching lunar landscape. The massive boulders that have been spewed from the volcano in its moments of fury make for particularly compelling viewing.

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Once we had eaten a delicious, and much needed, home-made lunch, we embarked on the final section of the ride. This took us across barren grasslands before plunging through lush pine forests. Pedalling across the grasslands and having to continually change gears was torturous. However, once we headed into the forest, all the effort seemed worthwhile. Here it was possible to really put my foot down, and get some serious speed up, flying over rocks and through puddles in the process. The speeds were comparable to further up the mountain but without the same fear factor, making this my favourite section of the ride. Finally, after four hours of hard riding, we reached the end point. Many of us felt seriously battered and bruised. None of us said that we didn’t enjoy every single minute of it.

TRAVEL TIPS

The trip is competitively priced at $55 per person. This includes lunch and transport to and from the national park. It doesn’t include the $10 entrance fee to the national park. Check out the Biking Dutchman’s website at http://www.bikingdutchman.com/

Disclaimer: This is an old article which I wrote eight years ago for a sadly now defunct paper called “The Ecuador Reporter.” I’ve updated the article so all price information is current, but please don’t blame me if anything else is out of date!

Categories: Ecuador, Mountain biking down Cotopaxi, South America, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing in Niseko

Ask most non-skiers where they think the best ski resorts in the world are, the chances are they’ll say Switzerland or France. Some might suggest the Canadian Rockies. Hardly any will mention Japan. However, surprisingly to many, the land of the rising sun is one of the world’s very best skiing and snowboarding destinations. Japan receives an incredible 5.5 metres (18 feet) of snow a year, nearly all of which is fresh powder. If you’re into winter sports, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. There are also over five hundred different ski resorts to choose from. One stands head and shoulders above the others though; Japan’s answer to Whistler, the truly majestic Niseko.

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Janey and I were lucky enough to spend four days in Niseko over Christmas, the centrepiece of our three week holiday to Japan. From the moment we arrived there, we fell in love with the place. That was despite having to endure a blizzard on the way from the bus station to our lodge. We later found out that we could have organised a pick up! The lodge itself was a large part of what made our stay in Niseko so memorable. Sat by a roaring log fire, with a cup of hot mulled wine, whilst the snowstorms raged outside, it felt like heaven on earth to me.

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Our first day of skiing, on Christmas Eve, was a frustrating one. It had been twenty months since our previous trip to the Sierra Nevada in Spain. Where had all the progress gone? I couldn’t seem to even change direction without falling over! The only consolation was that falling into the powder snow, felt like falling into the softest pillow you could ever imagine. December 24th was spent in Gran Hirafu, the largest of the four connected resorts that make up Niseko United. On Christmas Day, we went to Annupuri, which was much quieter and far closer to our lodge. I started tentatively at first, but bit my bit my confidence started to grow. I was doing entire runs without falling over! Then, on about my fourth run, I just let it go. I was skiing with complete confidence and freedom. The feeling of liberation was incredible. On the final run before lunch, we then got an amazing surprise Christmas present. For the first time in three days, the clouds cleared, and were treated to some absolutely mesmerising views of Mount Niseko.

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When I woke up on Boxing Day, every muscle in my body ached. My lower back was stiff and walking downstairs was a bit of an ordeal. Even though it was our last day, I couldn’t find any motivation. That was until Alan, the lodge manager, told me “there’s not many times in your life when you’ll ski on sixty centimetres of fresh snow.” SIXTY CENTIMETRES?!?! Was that really how much had fallen overnight?! Apparently it was and remarkably all my aches and pains disappeared rather rapidly. Within half an hour we were back out on the slopes for one of the best days of my life so far. In the morning, we sessioned the green runs four times, to refine our techniques, in preparation for taking on a red run. This had been my aim at the start of the three days. Now it was time to make it happen. When we stepped out of the gondola, at the top of the red run, the conditions were atrocious. Visibility was about two metres, the temperature was about minus ten, and the winds meant business. Getting to the bottom in one piece was going to be a bit of a test! Amazingly, we proved to be up to the challenge. It took about half an hour as we had to frequently stop to check that we were going in the correct direction. However, in the end we made it to the bottom without falling once. This was utterly exhilarating and a proud achievement. So we did it again for good measure, this time in slightly more clement conditions.

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The only thing that could top that morning was what was to come later in the day; night skiing. If there is one problem with Niseko, it’s that the majority of time the visibility isn’t good. The Siberian winds and eighteen feet of snow might have something to do with that. However, once the afternoon light fades, the floodlights are switched on, and the effect is just magical. Visibility is perfect, and to make it even better, the slopes are practically empty. Skiing through thick powder, on an almost empty piste in what felt like the middle of the night, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We rounded off the day with a trip to the natural onsen (a volcanic hot spring) and some hot sake. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Leaving Niseko the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve caught the skiing bug badly. Our first trip to Sierra Nevada planted the seed. Niseko made it blossom into a true and burning love! I now think regularly about different places we could ski in around the planet. Mongolia, Serbia and Chile are some of the more random ones I’ve come up with. One thing is for certain though; wherever we go next, it will be almost impossible for it to match up with Niseko.

TRAVEL TIPS

Annupuri Oasis Lodge is one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in. I’d choose to stay there over any five star hotel. Visit their website at http://www.annupurioasislodge.com/

Categories: Asia, Japan, Skiing in Niseko | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to ski in Spain

Have you ever tried something for the first time and wondered why you’d never tried it before? For me, that something was skiing. Until a couple of years ago I’d never had the opportunity to ski, except on something that resembled a giant brillo pad in deepest darkest Lancashire. I never went on a school skiing holiday, and most of my travelling (despite my gingerness and near-albino skin) has been done in hot countries. One February weekend in 2013 I went to Sierra Nevada, in Spain, and it was an instant love affair. Snow – great, fresh air – great, travelling very fast downhill – great, and the possibility to get intoxicated afterwards – great! Why had it taken me so long to try this?!

Sierra Nevada is the highest ski resort in Spain, and the southernmost ski resort on Europe It is less than 100 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast, meaning that you could feasibly ski and swim on the same day! The resort is most easily accessed from the city of Granada. A bus from the central bus station there takes just 45 minutes to reach Sierra Nevada. The fact that it’s a relatively small resort makes it good for learning, as you’re not battling for piste space. We went on a puente (a Spanish public holiday weekend) and the slopes still weren’t too packed. Obviously, one does not just rock up and start skiing like a professional though. We had some basics to learn! We booked our tuition through the British ski center. Our instructor Giles was a veteran of about twenty ski seasons. He was extremely knowledgeable and had a calm demeanour. He was also very tolerant of my habit of crossing my feet and Janey’s confusion between her left and right. On the first morning we learnt the very basics; how to start, stop, change direction and how to do a snowplow. We considered ourselves very lucky that there had been a massive dump of snow the previous, so our many falls were adequately cushioned!

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The first day of the trip we made limited progress. It was the second day when the love affair really began. After proving ourselves on the nursery slopes, Giles took us on one of the lifts for the first time. Somehow we tentatively made our way to the bottom, with Giles looking uber cool, skiing backwards in front of us. After he left us, we went back for some more. I hit the deck again several times, Janey skied off onto a different piste. However, slowly, run by run it started to come together. Slaloming down the slopes with a crisp wind whistling past my ears, I felt truly alive. It was also just as exhilarating as any extreme sport that I’ve tried. After making it to the bottom unscathed several times, I felt like some sort of bossman, just for conquering a blue run. Then I realised that I couldn’t ski down to the town, as that run was too technical and I’d probably be looking at months of physio as a result. Still, there’s always next time for the red runs, then there’s the black runs. After that off-piste, then heliskiing in the Rockies, then who knows?! The Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018?! Ok, maybe I’m getting slightly carried away but the point is, I REALLY caught the skiing bug badly!

Janey and I both left Sierra Nevada determined to continue skiing. Since then fate got in the way, as our next job after leaving Spain, turned out to be in Malaysia, where I’m not sure if a snowflake has ever fallen. However, where there’s a will there’s a way. As soon as I arrived in the Orient, I was planning our next ski trip, to the world class slopes of Japan. It couldn’t come soon enough. I needed my next hit. 032

TRAVEL TIPS

I’d highly recommend the British ski center if, like me, your Spanish is only conversational. Check out their website at http://www.britishskicenter.co.uk/

Categories: Europe, Skiing in Sierra Nevada, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Climbing Mount Rinjani

When I was a young boy my parents always used to take my siblings and I walking. Every bank holiday weekend, when our classmates were going to the seaside or to a theme park, we were tramping up and down the hills of the Lake District or Snowdonia. Needless to say, at the time we hated it. However, over the years, this fostered a love of the great outdoors that still persists to this day. By the time I was fifteen, I’d climbed all the three peaks of Britain. However, until last year, my love for walking had gone cold for a long time. That was until I climbed Mount Kinabalu and it completely reawakened my enthusiasm. New challenges needed to be sought. A colleague suggested Indonesia’s Mount Rinjani, reputedly even more spectacular than Kinabalu. In no time at all, flights were booked and a reservation was made. We were going trekking up an active volcano!

Situated on the island of Lombok, Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano, no mean feat in a country that has over a hundred of them. The summit of the volcano stands at 3726 metres. However, the main reason for Rinjani’s popularity is not the summit, but a spectacular crater lake, with the volcano’s new cone rising out of the centre. There are a plethora of trekking options available, ranging from one day to four days. We booked a three day, two night trek, which gives the option whether to go the summit or not.

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On day one, our trek began from the village of Senaru. The first section of the trek was through the jungle and was actually very comfortable. The heat wasn’t too stifling and the gradient was only slight, a far cry from the steep steps of Kinabalu. After around three hours we stopped for lunch and we saw the first negative aspect of Rinjani. The picnic area was covered in rubbish. Furthermore, the lunch that the porters cooked for us, although delicious, was far more than we could possibly eat. This meant that large quantities were wasted. As trekking up Rinjani becomes more popular, the companies are going to have to try to manage their environmental impact much more carefully.

After lunch, the walk became more challenging. Once we cleared the tree line, we emerged into savannah style terrain. Here the topsoil was almost non-existent, making maintaining our footing extremely difficult. The dust that this created stung our eyes, throats and nostrils. I resorted to drastic measures and wrapped my sweat towel around my face to combat it! Finally, after about seven hours of walking, we arrived at our campsite overlooking the crater rim. The second part of the trek had been arduous and the night time temperatures were freezing. However, the views of the lake, the stars, and Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance, made all the effort worthwhile.

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On day two we had the option of getting up very early and heading for the summit, or a trek down into the crater to swim in the lake, and visit the hot springs. Having been to the summit of South East Asia’s highest mountain a couple of months earlier, we had nothing to prove to ourselves and decided to have a few hours rest in the tent. On reflection, the walk to the summit probably wasn’t much harder than what we did. The crater is deceptively deep and it took us nearly three hours, down a steep winding path to reach the shore. Swimming in the lake was adequate reward, the hot springs much less so. Like the picnic area the previous day, they were absolutely filthy with food waste and even used toilet paper. It was a shame to see such a bucolic spot so tarnished. The trek back up to the crater rim was done in the height of the midday sun and took just as long. When we finally got there we wished we’d gone to the summit! Day two didn’t finish there either. Due to our desire to get to the Gili Islands the next day, we descended to Camp 3, just below the tree line. The dustbowl was even more precarious on the way down as our shoes had no traction at all. I took one very heavy fall, and awarded myself a large number of man points for bouncing straight back up!073093

Our final day began with a 5am wake up call. Following a delicious breakfast (the quantities were too large but the quality of the food on the mountain was consistently excellent) we embarked on a fairly straightforward three and a half hour trek to the bottom. Another three hours later, we were recuperating on the stunning Gili Islands, another of Lombok’s crown jewels.

The trek was challenging, but not as brutal as Kinabalu. The scenery, particularly the crater lake, was absolutely breathtaking. The only downside was the aforementioned litter problems. If you can get over this, I’d recommend Rinjani to any walking enthusiast. As for us, we’re taking a little break from climbing mountains for a while!

TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our trek through a company called Andreas Expedition. They were friendly and well organised throughout the booking process. However, we were not very impressed with our guide. Unlike the wonderful Diona on Mount Kinabalu, he was very impatient with Janey for her lack of speed, which clouded our opinion of him and the company somewhat.

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, Mount Rinjani | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Standing at an impressive height of 4,095 metres it towers over the rest of Borneo. Ever since I arrived in Malaysia last September, I’d wanted to climb it. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there I guess. I’m not really much of a mountaineer. Prior to climbing Kinabalu the highest mountain that I had climbed was Ben Nevis which is a molehill in comparison, at just 1,344 metres. There was something about Kinabalu that really made me want to take on the challenge though. Therefore, in May this year, Janey and I headed to Sabah, with the intention of ascending the great peak.

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On the first morning of our two day trek, we departed from the Timpohon gate, at 9:30am. Part of what makes Kinabalu unique is that for the first day of the climb you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain, as you’re trekking through fairly dense jungle. We’d been warned to expect sweltering heat and to sweat profusely. This didn’t really transpire as the temperatures were pleasantly mild. Nor did the steep steps seem too sapping. I naively congratulated myself for the many hours spent on the cross trainer and stairmaster in preparation for the trek. This wasn’t going to be that difficult after all! However, at about the 2.5km mark we started encountering people who were gingerly making their way down the mountain. One girl told me that she was so exhausted that her legs were shaking. Maybe that confidence was slightly misplaced.

Rain has a habit of following Janey and I around. Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester. Just after we’d stopped for lunch, it decided to make its customary appearance. This wasn’t the warm tropical rain that we’re used to in Penang. This was ice cold, torrential and it meant business. We tried to take shelter for a while but as it showed no signs of abating we ventured out for what would be the toughest part of the trek. Between 4.5 and 6 km the trail maintains its steep upward gradient. Just to make it more difficult though the steps disappear and the walkers have to navigate their way over or around some very larger boulders. The added challenge of the torrential rain made it akin to walking up a waterfall. Finally though, the tree line cleared and Laban Rata, our home for the night, appeared like a beautiful beacon of light. Soaked and miserable, we staggered into the hostel. There was only another 2.5km to go in the morning, with the prospect of more rain to come.

At first you can’t believe it. Is my alarm clock really going off at 1:30am? Then it dawns on you, it’s time to get up and attempt to summit. After trying to force down some beans on toast (seriously difficult at 2:00am) we departed Laban Rata and started our ascent to the summit. The most difficult aspect of this part of the climb is not the darkness, but the volume of climbers. Around 150 people all leave at the same time, which makes progress painstakingly slow. Eventually though, the stronger hikers get to the front and the line starts to spread out, and you can relax a little bit. Until you reach the rope. This is definitely the most dangerous point of the trek. We had to tightly grip onto a rope to enable us to inch along a very narrow ledge, with a sheer drop to the right. This torturous ordeal lasts for about fifteen minutes until you reach the final checkpoint. After that the rope continues but only as a marker to guide you across a long ridge. Strangely, for me, this was one of the easiest parts of the climb. Gone were the steps and boulders. We were just walking across smooth granite at a slight gradient. The challenge though is mental. In the approaching light, the summit is visible for a very long time before you get there, cruelly playing tricks on tired minds.

After what seemed like an eternity the ridge levelled out and we only had to scramble up a rocky crag to reach the ironically named Low’s Peak, the highest point in South East Asia. The sense of elation was overwhelming. I had done the Inca Trail some years earlier, but Kinabalu was easily the toughest physical challenge I’d ever undertaken. For that reason it’s also one of my proudest achievements.

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Once you have finished revelling in the magnificent views, it’s time to go down. And believe me, this is just as tough as the ascent, even with a stop for second breakfast (definitely the best meal of the day) at Laban Rata. Janey, who had performed heroically up to this point given the fact that she had twisted her ankle a month beforehand, started to suffer from exhaustion. This made the descent very slow. Throughout this section, we were indebted to our wonderful guide Doina for her seemingly endless patience and indefatigability. Finally, we dragged our battered bodies back through the Timpohon gate at around 4:45pm. The whole trek had taken about 16 hours from start to finish. Was it worth the agony and several subsequent days of muscle pain? Of course it was. Every single bit of it.

 

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TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our 2 day, 1 night package through a company called Sutera, who seem to have a monopoly on climbing packages and accommodation. Expect to pay about 1000RM. This seems pricey, but it includes 7 meals, 2 nights accommodation and all climbing insurance etc. Ss the official Mount Kinabalu website http://www.mountkinabalu.com/ for details.

 

 

Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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