Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bangkok and The Conclusion of Trip #1

On my way home, I stopped in Bangkok for a couple of days, since I had never been there before. What a fun place!

I spent a lot of time walking around, although the city is pretty accessible by metro, train, and cheap, reliable taxis. I felt pretty safe regardless of where I ended up, day and night - Bangkok's residents seem to usually return every smile and be pretty friendly folks. Obviously, there are enough tourists in the city that plenty vendors are in the business of marketing things and services (including "massages", of course) to the likes of us, but even those weren't very aggressive. (Or maybe I've just grown a thicker skin.)

I decided that the risk for montezuma's revenge was manageable, and ended up snacking constantly from food vendors on the streets and in little stalls, which was both quite affordable and super-tasty. I wonder whether it is even possible to exhaust one's appetite for Thai food in all its varieties? And my favorite thing about Bangkok's nightlife? Old Volkswagen Buses converted into mobile cocktail bars that set up in busy streets at night!

A T2 converted into a mobile cocktail bar - pure genius! I see a project in my (distant) future.
As the first trip of "David's Year Off" concludes, I am enjoying the luxury of getting home without having to go to work the next day. Although I am keeping myself busy with cave management reports that are due at the end of the year, and such things.

A few things that I have learned:
  • While it appears that my renter's insurance principally covers me dropping my brand-new point-and-shoot camera into a hole in a glacier cave in Nepal, the deductible is higher than what the camera cost.
  • I am still hostel / dorm-room compatible, it seems. I slept surprisingly well in the dorm room in Bangkok, and had fun drinking with the random strangers who were also staying at that place.
  • I still consider myself a point-and-shoot photographer, but I think I learned a lot about using my (slightly outdated) Nikon D80 in the past few weeks.
Market on Th Din Daeng.
My Bangkok photos can be found on Smugmug. (The Nepal and Bhutan ones are still being edited.)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Week in Bhutan

Since we were already in that part of Asia, Vickie and I had decided to use the opportunity and spend some days touristing in Bhutan before heading back home. A week was about the maximum that I wanted to afford on my year-off budget, as Bhutan is quite different from the style of traveling that I'm used to: regardless of itinerary and activities, you always pay the same government-mandated fixed daily rate and choose from a (fairly large) number of available tour operators that will provide a custom itinerary, driver, and guide. No taking the bus to places and choosing your own budget hotels. In return, you get to visit a country that successfully manages to preserve its culture and natural resources while not censoring its people or flat-out rejecting modern technology.

We got picked up by our driver and our guide at the airport, and got whisked to Punakha, where we visited the dzong (fortress) and the temple of the Divine Madman the next morning. From there, we moved on to Phobjikha, with the intent to see some black-necked cranes spending their winter in the Hidden Valley. The next morning saw us hiking the Shasila trail, a few hundred meters up and then about a kilometer down in elevation. It followed a day in Thimphu, and then two nights in Paro. (Including a visit of the Tiger's Nest, of course.) Beautiful places everywhere. We learned a lot about Buddhism from our guide, too. And, courtesy of the season, sun everyday, with a sweater (or more layers, at higher elevations) required at night.

Black-necked cranes

The hotels our travel agency booked us in were all beyond our expectations, to varying degrees. (Our expectations having been fueled by staying in mountain lodges in the Solukhumbu for the past month, but anyway. ;-)) Hot water anywhere anytime, comfortable beds, and decent food throughout, although most of the time buffet-style and, citing the Lonely Planet from memory, prepared "to not offend anyone". Talking about it...

Bhutanese food is quite interesting. Chilies are the main ingredient for some of the dishes, not just an addition to spice things up. The hottest ema datshi that we had was in Thimphu and drove pleasant sweat onto my forehead; others weren't quite as bad and had probably been watered down for us tourists. Meat is mainly brought in from India, since Buddhists have a hard time killing animals. Decent beer is to be had (Red Panda Weiss Beer, and Druk 11000 "Super Strong Beer"), although my IPA-loving friends might not get too happy here.

Chilies drying on a roof.

Thinking about going yourself? Make sure you tell your guide company your preferences, so that they can tailor your itinerary accordingly. In our case, deviations from a canned seven-day itinerary included making it to Phobjikha, and spending a day on a hike. If we had known/thought about it before, it might have also included staying in a hotel in town in Paro, allowing us to roam around in the evening, instead of at the really nice but remote resort we ended up at. Any spontaneous requests that don't involve changing hotel reservations can easily be handled by your guide, as well.

All in all, I think it was a worthwhile investment. Although a week of being driven around and guided to (admittedly beautiful) touristy sights is about what I can handle, I think. (We were limited to the western part of Bhutan, anyway, since driving up and down winding mountain roads takes its time and you can't just zip around 100s of kilometers in a day.) I'm glad we had some hiking built in. If I was to go again and/or for a longer time frame, paying the tourist rate, I'd probably want to build in some multi-day trekking. (Climbing mountains is off limits in Bhutan.) We also saw some Westerners riding around on mountain bikes, which could be fun.

Archery tournament in Thimphu. (A regional semi-final. ;))

Friday, November 30, 2012

Glacier Caves

The day we made it to Gokyo, we spent the afternoon climbing up the lateral moraine to get our first glimpse of the glacier. It was awe-inspiring. The Ngozumpa is a debris-covered glacier. It is fed in its accumulation zone by avalanches, so the snow contains a lot of rocks/boulders of all sizes. When the upper layers of the ice and rock mixture melt, the rocks (debris) is left over and covers the surface of the glacier.

View north onto the Ngozumpa from the lateral moraine at Gokyo.

Lakes of melt water form on the glacier, exposing ice faces. The drainage of those supra-glacial lakes into lower basins on the glacier is the primary cause for the formation of caves in the ice. (Water streaming across the bedrock under the glacier being another, but those were not caves we were expecting to find on this trip due to the depth of the glacier.) After such a drainage event, cave entrances are often visible in the ice faces of drained lake basins, and this is what we were after. (Entering crevasses or moulins in the hopes of finding caves on debris-covered glaciers does not seem to be a good idea, since inevitable, you will be showered in debris when attempting to do so.) Luckily, we were able to identify several potential cave entrances during this first recon trip, and even a convenient way onto the glacier down the steep moraine -- a few years ago, the trail that leads to Dragnag and the Cho La on the other side of the glacier had moved north about two kilometers and now allowed (relatively) easy access to the glacier directly from our lodge in Gokyo.

During our two weeks in Gokyo, we found a total of four caves that we explored, and investigated a number of other entrances that either didn't go anywhere or appeared to dangerous for us wanting to spend time in them:

Jason explaining the basics of glacier cave relevance for GlacierWorks footage.

Cave #1 had a huge keyhole entrance and was maybe 500-600 meters long. It turned out that Jason had already surveyed this cave in 2009. The cave had experienced several modifications since then, including a new branch of passage that led to another entrance in a different (dry) lake basin. We started a re-survey, and Vickie and I learned the particularities of surveying ice caves: setting survey stations with an ice screw and marking them with paper flags, and being particularly accurate with LRUDs (left-right-up-down measurements from the station). In the meantime, Jason and Pati started measuring the scallops on the cave walls that indicate the direction and flow rate of the water through the cave during the drainage event that created the cave. They soon realized that this cave had experienced too many such events to be useful for the model that Jason was looking to create, and we abandoned the survey.

Cave #2 was a small, nicely decorated room in the dry lake basin that could be reached by a trip through Cave #1. Caves #3 and #4 were found toward the end of our stay. #3 started out as a fairly large room with a low ceiling, and a canyon carved through the ice on one side of the room. Below that canyon, more cave passage could be made out, but not reached. At least not with the limited amount of vertical gear that we had made the porters drag up the mountains. (We hadn't bothered, because previous expeditions had not found much in terms of vertically developed caves on the glaciers in the Solukhumbu region.) Cave #4 was a few hundred meters long and fairly well decorated with ice formations. By the time we found it, we had run out of time for a proper survey, though.

Pati admiring drapery.

On our last caving day, we returned to cave #1 to help David Breashears of GlacierWorks, who we had run into a few days earlier, make the cave virtually accessible for education purposes. Mainly by Jason pointing out and explaining relevant features of the cave to support still and video photography taken by GlacierWorks.

To sum it all up: We had a good time, got to go play in some beautiful caves, help an education project, and learn some new things about the Ngozumpa Glacier. And since this was a self-financed trip, we also took the liberty to "tourist" around and spend afternoons climbing Gokyo Ri and hiking out to the Fifth Lake for a view of the intersection between the Gyazumba and Ngozumpa Glaciers. A truly beautiful place.

View from Gokyo Ri at sunset: Everest & Co; southern part of the Ngozumpa; Gokyo; and parts of the Third Lake.

p.s.: Don't try this at home. ;-) While some of the dangers of glacier caving are quite obvious (rocks hitting you while you run in or out of the debris-covered entrance), others (such as, false floors, and cracks in the ice that indicate the potential for a collapse) aren't. Jason spent several hours teaching us what to watch out for...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Traveling in the Khumbu

We made it. From Kathmandu at the end of October to the "most dangerous airport in the world" (Lukla, at 2840 m elevation), and then up the mountains for not quite two vertical kilometers, to Gokyo (at 4790 m / 15715 ft). And back about four weeks later. This blog post will summarize our travels, and I will write a separate one on the glacier caving we got to do during our two-week long stay in Gokyo...

Turnaround time for passenger machines seems to average something like 5-10 minutes. The one in the background is on the runway, about to take off.

Flying (into and back) out of Lukla airport, with its 12 degree sloped and 460 m long runway, is quite entertaining. (The seeming chaos introduced by the airlines' check-in systems is almost worth a separate blog entry, but on the other hand is nothing that can't be dealt with...) Due to our issues with getting a flight out to Lukla from Kathmandu in the first place, we had decided to actually make reservations for a return flight on a specific date, rather than getting an "open return" ticket that allows more flexibility. This proved to be a smart move a month later when we were ready to return to Kathmandu, since bad weather and the going bankrupt of another airline left many people stranded in Lukla, waiting for seats on full flights to open up.

Only Jason had been at these altitudes for a prolonged time before, so we had an interesting time figuring out how the rest of us would adjust to it. General recommendations for people who don't know how well they acclimatize seem to include to move up about 300 to 500 meters a day, and to spend a rest day every 1000 m or so. So we learned all about the symptoms of altitude sickness (AMS, HACE, HAPE), but our constant self-diagnosis attempts got interfered with by various colds and other aches that everybody in our group was fighting on the way up -- not the ideal condition for quick acclimatization, it turns out.

We spent extra rest days at Namche Bazaar, where a German bakery serves really excellent cappuccino and pastries, and in Machermo, where you can attend a free talk about altitude sickness every afternoon at IPPG's volunteer-staffed Porter Shelter and Rescue Post. And we decided to head straight for Gokyo and the Ngozumpa Glacier, instead of paying Gorak Shep and the Khumbu Glacier (at even higher elevation) a visit first.

I think I personally dealt with the altitude OK. I rarely felt sick, other than having a mild cold at some time and a stuffy nose most of the time -- things I usually incur quickly when in colder climates. But after two weeks in Gokyo, climbing up the lateral moraine to get out of the glacier was still quite a strenuous task, as was climbing more than just a few stair steps. But maybe that is just they way it is. ;-)

Trekkers trekking, horses porting, and cavers resting on the way up.

Apart from the elevation, traveling on the established tourist routes in the Khumbu is straightforward and convenient. Overnight, you stay in lodges that provide basic accommodation for a nominal fee and make their money by selling you (generally quite tasty) meals and tea, and often Internet access or the service of charging your batteries for many rupees. During the day, you hike along established trails that you share with tourists (a lot of them -- especially during our first weeks, beginning of November), horses, yaks (in the higher regions), and porters -- often chatting on their cell phone -- that either carry supplies to the towns at higher elevation, or tourists' luggage. Rare is the Nepali who isn't friendly, helpful, and hospitable.

We ourselves had pre-arranged to hire three porters on our way up to ease our own loads and drag our caving gear up the mountains. Unfortunately but not too surprising, they did not show up as agreed when our stuff needed to go back down two weeks later, and we had to improvise with lodge-arranged horses and porters that weren't quite as reliable as we had hoped. But it all worked out in the end.

One of the most valuable gadgets I dragged up into the Khumbu turned out to be my Kindle e-reader. I read about half a dozen books on rest days, in the evening, and whenever we weren't out and about. Probably more than I've read in the past year or so. Having to carry that much paper weight around would have been a burden. The solar panel worked out nicely, too, allowing us to re-charge batteries for our Sten lights, as well as Kindles, etc.

It remains a word to be said about the organized tour groups up in the Khumbu, based on many observations during the past weeks. "10-day trek to Everest Base Camp!", etc. -- I wouldn't do it. If you want to go "trekking" in the Everest region, either go by yourself (although I would always travel with at least two persons in case something happens), or get your own porters and/or guide. This gives you the flexibility to adjust your schedule and destinations on a daily basis, rather than being subjected to a pre-planned schedule without much respect to individuals feeling sick, tired, or needing an extra day to adjust to the altitude...

Monday, October 29, 2012


I was the last one of our four-person team to get into Kathmandu, last Friday afternoon. After an uneventful flight on Thai Air from Bangkok, having to stand in line for over an hour in order to obtain my visa made me worried that I wouldn't make it into town in time for us to go and get our TIMS card (Nepal's Trekkers' Information Management System) in the afternoon. Turns out there was no reason to worry. Jason had been told that the earliest flight to Lukla we could get tickets for might be Tuesday, so we weren't in a rush anyway and went to have a beer instead.

Random intersection in the old part of town. Power lines and motor cycles everywhere.

In addition to organizing ourselves and buying things like toilet paper for our trek, this meant we had plenty time for sighseeing. Our hotel is in Thamel, the tourist core of the town, which is littered with shops selling souvenirs and mountaineering gear; as well as plenty of massage parlors, restaurants, and bars catering to all potential desires. Most of the time, we had to actually move around single-file. Cars and motor cycles (as well as bicycle rikshas and the occasional solo bicycle) are constantly squeezing themselves through the narrow streets, frequently making you aware of their (and each others) presence by honking their horns and ringing their bells.

The mountaineering gear vendors are entertaining. They typically sell knock-offs of western brands. Not necessarily one-to-one imitations if you take a close look, but bearing the logos from the North Face et al., including tags that claim that the material is -- of course -- Gore-Tex. I even saw copies of Goal Zero solar panels that looked pretty much like the originals, just the paint job was a little sloppy. In between, they sell Nepali brands, too. Pati, Vickie, and I were actually in the market for heavy down parkas, and we ended up buying "Sangam" ones for slightly over USD 100 each. They seem functional, but (as is to be expected) lack all the (technical) bells and whistles you get for significantly more money in the west. We'll see how they do.

Sightseeing included Durbar Square and the Swayambhunath temple. Getting used to the local food (momos and dhal bat) was fairly easy, it has been delicious so far!

Stupa at the Swayambhunath temple complex.
As we are sitting in Tom and Jerry's bar for a pre-dinner beer and the lights suddenly go out, another tidbit to mention about Kathmandu comes to mind. Rolling power outages. They do seem to happen within the boundaries of some set schedule (at least there is one posted at our hotel), but otherwise randomly and multiple times a day. Every place has at least some battery backup-powered lights, and/or candles. It doesn't stop anybody from going about their business. (Except me, maybe, when the Internet goes down.)

Anyway. After some last-minute flight-booking drama last night (our previously confirmed but not ticketed plane seats were lost and did we want to go by helicopter at 6 am the next morning instead?), this afternoon the hotel agent finally managed to get us tickets for a flight tomorrow, and Vickie and I remembered to actually go and get our TIMS cards half an hour before the tourism bureau closed. The rest of the afternoon was spent packing and recharging batteries for various gadgets, and tomorrow we're finally off to Lukla, at least by all likelihood. It's about time, too, my throat is starting to get irritated from all the dust and smog in the air here. No wonder face masks are popular.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Preparing for Nepal

"So what's your first destination gonna be?"

Now that I am officially funemployed, preparations for my first extended trip are ... about to be completed, actually. I have spent many recent weekends and nights piling up gear in the living room and checking things off my checklists.

In about a week from now, I will be headed for Nepal. I'll be helping my friend Jason Gulley, a hydrologist and glaciologist, to survey glacier caves in the Khumbu (Mount Everest) region for about a month. Our team of four will be hiking in from Lukla, on the trails used by many high altitude trekkers and mountaineers on their way to Everest base camp, and then use a combination of caving and ice climbing techniques to explore and study the caves that have formed by water flowing through the glaciers in the region.

Preparations included such things as imitating the Russian design of caving butt pads by sewing a piece of elastic webbing to a foam pad -- we'll see how that works on the ice, but the idea is that you wear it around, and whenever you sit down it'll be there to provide some insulation. Sounds like a good idea for surveying in cold caves.

Foam pad for insulation while surveying the caves
The four of us will be using StenLights as our primary light sources underground. The StenLight makers kindly agreed to provide us with a prototype for a 12V battery charger for the lights, which we intend to use with my Goal Zero solar panel. I hope my basic soldering skills were good enough to make the adapter cable between the panel and the charger last for the whole trip -- I'm definitely excited about the setup. ;-)

My improvised soldering station
Updating my first aid kit took a surprising amount of hours, but it'll be good to go, not just for this one trip. I found Medicine for Mountaineering to be really useful in terms of learning about the different kinds of medication that should go into it. Now I just need to decide whether I should upgrade my Global Rescue membership from the basic one that comes with an AAC membership.

Oh, and I should mention that Klättermusen provided us with pretty awesome jackets and salopettes that will keep us protected from the wetness underground (and above); as well as with additional gear.

Other plans for my "year off" aren't all firm yet, but will (likely) include pushing leads at the bottom of a Tiankeng in Southwest China over Spring Festival, spending a few weeks helping out at J2, and attending the ICS next year. I need to add some more mountaineering fun to that mix, though. Oh, and participating in a caving expedition in Quintana Roo (Yucatán) while the world ends is on the list. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Dear friends, family, colleagues, world:

When I graduated from college in 2000, a good friend's uncle told me: "You guys should really take a year off after getting your degree and go see the world; later in life you might have the money to do it, but not the opportunity." I didn't, and of course he was right.

I actually was excited to start a real job after school. And it has been good. I've benefited from many opportunities, learned, and grown a lot. And my work led me to places in life that allowed me to find out about and appreciate non-work things, as well - caving, climbing, vertical work, mountaineering, the outdoors, ... I have had the chance to gain new experiences - moving to Texas, having awesome co-workers and a rewarding job, making new friends, moving in with somebody I love, …

And while I don't have house payments or parental responsibilities holding me back, it's still hard to throw aside a career and well-paying job and go travel for a year. But here goes. Come October, after twelve years of full-time employment, I have decided to take a year off and travel the world, think about what I want to do next, and enjoy life while I can. Climb a mountain, explore a cave - things I may not be fit or healthy enough to do once I grow older.

Practically, this means quitting my job. atsec has been, and continues to be, a great place to work and make a difference. Weighing the benefits of a gratifying work environment against my personal urge to go out and turn my spare-time hobbies into a full-time endeavor for a while was not, by any means, an easy decision. To the extent that I don't have any concrete plans yet on what will be next. I might return to the same or a similar field in information security, or find something new or completely different. I plan to maintain my professional certifications for now and stay in touch with the industry -- after all, I'm still fascinated with security. But there are new things to be learned as well.

In the meantime, if you know of any interesting trips or expeditions coming up and want to invite me along, don't hesitate! :-)

*Rückenwind = tail wind, as in http://www.thomasd.net/cms/front_content.php?idart=93

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Musings on eBook travel guides

(I'm biased, I admit it. I have a personal preference for using Lonely Planet's travel guides. I tried others for a while, but then went back to LP. So, while the following musings might apply to other brands of travel guides as well, my experience is mostly focused on LP's.)

When I first tried reading a Lonely Planet guide on my Kindle Touch a while ago, I got frustrated. Reading a travel guide in black and white is less fun, for one. And the free-flow formatting of text irritates me. Not to speak of displaying maps and other graphics on a black & white e-ink device. I don't recommend it.

Looking at the same guide on my Kindle app on the iPad is significantly nicer. But one thing that it still doesn't give you is the easy ability to flip back and forth between pages in different sections of the book. I don't often read travel guides serially, from page one to the last one. I flip back and forth between chapters that interest me, the map pages, and other sections cross-referenced in the text. Setting bookmarks just doesn't cut it.

However, Lonely Planet also sells PDF versions of their books for download (or even just individual chapters of them). When I was looking for the city guide for Bangkok tonight, I noticed a few things that I found worth pointing out:
  • While the paper version was still available on Amazon, it was sold out on lonelyplanet.com. Why? Because in September (two months down the road) they will be distributing a new edition of it. It's really nothing new, but always worth mentioning: Check the publication date of the guide before you buy it, and when the next edition is due. (Lonely Planet makes this easy for you nowadays - they mention the current and next planned publication date on their web site. Back in the days, you had to email them and ask.)
  • They give away the book index for free (well, that's of limited use), but also the map section of the book. I think that's just awesome. Another limitation of electronic travel guides is that you have to pull out your device for public display whenever you want to look at a map. Having the maps in a PDF, regardless of the form you bought the book in, (be it on paper, the Kindle edition, PDF, or whatever,) you can just print out the maps you need from the PDF file and carry them around on pieces of paper. And it probably benefits some folks who aren't interested in the whole book but only in the maps - I think that's a good call on LP's end, mixing commercial interest without being paranoid about giving something away for free.
  • The PDF version of the guide that's coming out in print in September is already available for purchase.
Alright, so I decided to give the PDF version a try. Here are my first observations:
  • If you buy the whole book, you still download the individual PDFs of its individual chapters. A little annoying to handle, but I use GoodReader and that allows me to organize documents into folders, etc., making that aspect less of a hassle.
  • I like being able to read the chapters the way they were laid out for the print publication.
  • Flipping back and forth between sections is still not great. Although at least I can switch back and forth between the individual PDFs, and my reader will remember where in a PDF file I stopped reading.
  • The index PDF contains an index referring to page numbers. Not too helpful, because it's hard to relate the PDF file names to page numbers. The file names hint at some of the chapter titles, but if you sort them alphabetically, it doesn't result in an order of PDF files that would match the order of the chapters in the printed book. Adding the page numbers to the file names would be a quick fix, not sure why LP didn't do that for me.
  • Likewise, the Contents page does refer to page numbers only, and the PDF file names don't help me figure those out. Which of the PDF files contains the Survival Guide that's starting on page 219??
Ah well. At least I saved a tree. Or some such.