a blog about seeing the world

Posts tagged “mountains

Looking ahead, looking back

It’s been a little over a month since we disembarked from a plane at Burlington International Airport, looking about as bad as we felt after 30 hours of travel time. Despite the idyllic green image of home we held onto for our 16 months away, we were greeted by tired, wet, brown, mid-spring surroundings—a truly disheartening time of year.

But, home would not be home without our friends and family, and good times have been had. The world is now green and beautiful, our garden is partly planted, and our wiffle ball field has already seen plenty of use. It is good to be home.

There are days when it seems we might never have left, like we’ve awoken from a dream. But others bring back memories from lands far away, such as the lupines blooming along our driveway. Along that vein, we thought we’d share the whole collection of title page banners that we used rather like calendar photos along the way. Viewed together they present some beautiful contrasts that capture a bit of what travel is like.

We are not quite done posting to this blog and we’re also cutting together hours of video into a short film for entry into some film festivals later this summer. Until then, enjoy the photos. Click the pictures to see the related post.

The relentless snowfall of Hokkaido, Japan. January, 2011.

Frosted peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park. January 2011.

Birch trees clinging to steep slopes on Yarigatake, Hakuba, Japan. February 2011.

Windows into old Japan, Kyoto. February 2011.

Close up on the Buddhist temples dotting Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2011.

Burning rice fields cloud the Nam Hou river, Laos. March 2011.

The best beach ever.  El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. April 2011.

Lush eucalypt forest along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. May 2011.

First light on the Tasman Sea. Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. May 2011.

Mandarin harvest, South Australia.  May 2011.

Watching over Uluru. Australia’s red center. June 2011.

Floodplains at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. June 2011.

Filtered sun through fan palms, Daintree, Queensland. July 2011.

A sea of vines, Marlborough, New Zealand. August 2011.

The Kaikoura Peninsula, New Zealand. September 2011.

Tree fern silhouette, Abel Tasman, New Zealand. October 2011.

Glacial meltwater, Fiordland, New Zealand. November 2011.

Lupines. Omarama, New Zealand. December 2011.

Vine leaf, Marlbourough New Zealand. January 2012.

The dry and golden Wither Hills, Blenhiem, New Zealand. February 2012.

Morning light on a distant glacier, Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. March 2012.

Ferns in the kauri forest, Northland, New Zealand. April 2012.

One last walk

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ve probably noticed a trend. We walk. A lot. Yes, it may be free, easy, and often one of the best ways to experience a new place. But by this time you must be wondering — aren’t we sick of hiking?

Well…no, not really. It’s safe to say that New Zealand is home to the most varied landscape on the planet. The topography, climate, and vegetation all change drastically as you travel up, down, or across these small pieces of land. Each trail has proved to be undeniably unique, beautiful, and full of surprises, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will end up being the last long walk of our trip, was no different. Traversing 20 kilometers of the central North Island’s volcanic highlands, the Crossing navigates volcanic peaks, wide lava plains, and thermal hotspots.

But first, if you are going to have an enjoyable day completing the Alpine Crossing, you should temper your expectations. Piles of travel brochures proclaim it to be the best day hike in New Zealand — or even, ambitiously, the world. A bold statement, and one that lures tens of thousands of people a year to the trailhead. We’ve walked many beautiful trails in New Zealand and I’m sure the rest of the world has a lot to offer. Let’s just call it a nice walk and leave it at that.

So, we were expecting crowds, but were still quite shocked to see several hundred other people joining us at the trailhead on a cold, windy, cloudy morning. Hiking up in a steady stream of tourists with views partially blocked by the back of some stranger’s head, we got the strange feeling we were part of an Old West covered wagon train rather than experiencing a South Pacific wilderness. We neglected to photograph this portion of the trip for obvious reasons.

Grandiose titles and crowds aside, Tongariro National Park holds a captivating landscape. The trail winds through vast empty sweeps of land filled with chunks of black volcanic rock, pressure-warped pieces of brown and red pumice, and hardy gnarled shrubs. It’s beautiful in a stark and dramatic sort of way, and, once again, completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.

As we approached Mount Ngaurahoe—the brooding volcanic peak that served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—the clouds shrouding the summit evaporated. It looked like a long, boring climb, but we had to do it.

Surprise, surprise, it was a long, boring climb. Loose ash and pumice slid down the sides of the steep cone with every step, requiring nearly twice the effort, and a cold wind blasted us, numbing our fingers and noses. The crowds were left behind, though, and views opened up with each step upwards. By the time we reached to top we had forgotten about all the effort to get there.

Thin wisps of volcanic steam rose from the bottom of the ice-crusted caldera, mixing with the passing clouds. Broad sweeps of barren land spread out below us, dotted with emerald lakes and plumes of sulfuric steam from geothermal vents. Lake Taupo glittered in the distance and 130 kilometers to the southwest, the tip of Mount Taranaki poked out from above the clouds. It was utterly freezing at the top, with ice-cold winds threatening to blow us over the edge.


So Long, South Island

As a way to say goodbye to the South Island that we’ve called home for over 7 months, we recently made the full day’s drive down to Wanaka for one more mountain adventure. The beautiful West Matukituki Valley lies in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park, which has captivated us time and time again with beech forest, tumbling glaciers, and mountain meadows. The chance to spend two days high above and encircled by the Southern Alps proved the perfect farewell.

Ascending 4,000 feet in just 2 miles, the route from Aspiring Hut to the north ridge of Mount Tyndall is a punishing ascent through snow grass and precipitous crags.

But the view helps take the mind off burning legs and lungs.

A small hollow at the top of the ridge makes for a perfect campsite: just enough protection from a stiff east wind, and incredible views across the valley to Mount Aspiring. (more…)

A Tramping Trilogy: Above the Clouds

It only took a few days of slothing around Wanaka’s cafes and public library to fully recover from our 64-kilometer Gillespie Pass adventure. Though we were due in Christchurch in just three days, the weather forecast for the weekend was promising and we had our sights set higher.

The two-day climb up Mount Adams, a prominent peak halfway up the island’s west coast, had caught our eye months ago. Deemed in a tramping book as “one of the finest viewpoints on the coast that can be reached without the need for serious mountaineering,” the upper reaches of the climb are on snow and still require crampons and an ice axe. After stocking up on snack mix, we rented some gear out on a Friday afternoon and rallied for the five-hour drive over Haast Pass and up the coast.

Loaded down with mountaineering gear and the typical array of camping supplies, we started out on the banks of Dry Creek on a sunny and promising morning. It’s actually a rather misleading moniker, and the route upriver requires lots of boulder-hopping and countless river fords. Looking back over our shoulder after an hour of progress, we noticed we were starting out disturbingly close to sea level for a climb up a 7,286-foot mountain.

Looking back down Dry Creek with the Tasman Sea beyond.

At last, a cairn marked the start of the proper trail, and after a snack break we started up. And by up, we mean straight up— 4,000 feet up in 2 miles.

Looking up at 4,000 feet of climbing.

Adams is not a popular climb, and the route is accordingly rough. In fact, we’d been told that Department of Conservation officials hadn’t been up here for maintenance in two years, which explained the downed trees. We climbed—literally grappling tree roots and branches—along the narrow, gnarled, and often faint footpath. It was clear from quantity of spider webs that we’d have the mountain to ourselves.

Mount Adams falls in a slender section of the west coast known as the “beech gap,” and the lovely beech forests we’ve grown to love were replaced by dense, tangled woods. We did not love it, and after three hours we were pleased to break out into open slopes covered in snow grass. The marked trail ended here, allowing us to find our own way up along the ridgeline, which was now engulfed in afternoon clouds. Mercifully, they obscured how much further we had to go.

By now, our heavily laden packs were wearing us down, and I could have fallen asleep with my backpack on. Actually, I tried this on one short break, worrying Nate enough that he kindly took some of the gear off my pack. This was by far the hardest hike we’d ever undertaken, and it was taking a serious toll. Alex relieved me of my crampons, and I slowly made my way up, up, up.

Just as fatigue seemed to be settling in for good, the sun started to poke through, and a few minutes later we had the first of many rewards. Bright, silvery clouds parted to reveal windows of snowy mountains and rugged alpine country. We continued up a series of several humps in awe of our surroundings.


A Tramping Trilogy: Gillespie Pass

A few weeks back, while the three of us were lazing by the lakeshore near sleepy Omarama, we realized it was time to stop being, well… lazy. It had been more than four months since we arrived in New Zealand, and over two since we met up with Alex and began our full-scale South Island exploration. Though we’d traversed the island several times over, our 90 L packs had remained neglected and the soles of our shoes had seen only a handful of day walks. It was time to load up our gear and head for the hills to participate in the beloved Kiwi pastime of tramping.

New Zealand is laced with an unbelievable number of walking trails, and it’s actually quite overwhelming trying to decide which piece of wilderness to explore. Though we had been eyeing an alpine crossing under the shadow of Mount Cook, an inconclusive weather forecast forced us to look further south. We settled on a 64-kilometer route connecting the Young and Wilkin river valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park, spent a day organizing gear and food, and set off with clear skies and high spirits.

A typically enchanting beech forest cloaks most of the Young valley, the fat and peeling birch-like trunks hanging with moss. The river —boasting that bright blue color we’ve only seen in New Zealand—tempted us with clear pools, though we knew it was painfully cold from our crossing earlier in the day. Every once in a while, we’d come to a wide meadow and get a spectacular view of the peaks all around us.

After seven hours and 20 kilometers, the last part steadily uphill, we came to the impressively posh Young Hut. Though our legs were exhausted and the bunks were inviting, we all agreed we didn’t hike all this way through the woods to sleep in a hostel. After a short rest we hoisted our packs and pressed on for another hour and few hundred vertical meters.

At last, emerging from the last of the sub-alpine brush, we could see the headwaters of the river we’d been following all day. A huge grassy plain spread in a near-perfect circle, culminating in a craggy cirque at the head of the valley. Alpine daisies and large mountain buttercups dotted the pale grass, and cliffs hemmed us in on all sides.

Nate reviewing the day's progress.

After a predictably delicious mac and cheese dinner, the sinking sun lit up the mountains before dropping behind them. We couldn’t have been happier. This was worth walking for!

The next day held the shortest, but by far the steepest, section of the hike: 600 meters up to the crest of Gillespie Pass. The trail turned sharply up the south side of the valley, orange poles marking the route among the tussocks. The scenery kept improving with every step, and stops to catch a breath soon became chances to soak up the view. (more…)

Two familiar faces

Right as the best American holiday, Thanksgiving, was about to pass by unnoticed here in New Zealand, some long-awaited visitors from home arrived. Nate’s parents, Jan and Dan, traveled with us for 12 days, bringing near constant sunshine along with them.

We decided it would be a mistake to try to recreate the classic holiday meal, especially over a campstove. So, we all gathered around the picnic table for a southern hemisphere Thanksgiving of greenshell mussels, local sweet potatoes and asparagus. Delicious!

From left to right: Steph, Jan, Dan, Alex, Nate.

Along with the perfect weather, they came bearing treats from home. After all these months of camping we could finally construct proper s’mores with some graham crackers!

And our favorite beer, Heady Topper, was the perfect addition to a sunny afternoon on the West Coast.

Along with repeating some favorites, we also used the trip to explore some new places.

Hmmm… caulk the wagon and float across?

After some debate we rolled across and continued up the valley to a place that could be mistaken for paradise. It was just like “The Oregon Trail,” without the dysentery.

The beautiful West Matukituki Valley quickly became one of our newest favorite places in New Zealand.

They also treated us to perhaps the best Christmas present ever: two cruises on the sounds of Fiordland… (more…)

The Cloud Piercer

Rising 8,000 feet from the floor of the glacier-carved Hooker Valley, the tallest peak in New Zealand is truly world class. This is where Sir Edmund Hilary trained before climbing Everest; a mountain that just makes you want to climb it after one look. Though we were under-prepared to even cross above the snowline, we had an excellent two days gazing at the walls of rock and ice surrounding Mount Cook— or, as its known by its appropriately badass Maori name, Aoraki,  “The Cloud Piercer.”

In the morning we dropped by the excellent information center, which displayed stunning aerial shots, old photos of early mountaineers, and facts and figures about the surrounding geology.  The nearby and equally good  Sir Edmund Hillary museum celebrated the climbing titan’s achievements and Antarctic expeditions.  Just outside, the south face was lit a cool ice blue.

The receding Tasman Glacier has left one of New Zealand’s newest and coldest lakes in its wake. Lake Tasman is a scene straight out of Antarctica, and seeing a group of kayakers paddle next to some of the smallest icebergs gave it a new sense of scale. The massive Hooker Valley extended out of sight, a perfectly flat plane among towering peaks. We could just picture the Ice Age glaciers making their slow progress south.

The view up the Hooker Valley from the Sealy Tarns.

Though Mount Cook is the region’s draw card, the glaciers clinging to the commanding north face of Mount Sefton were equally impressive. (more…)

Two moods of the Milford Road

The sounds of water are everywhere in the Fiordlands. Rushing down rock faces, dripping quietly from moss, splattering on the hood of your jacket. Rain – from yesterday’s pounding torrent to the present misty drizzle – is at home here. We chose to accept it as a travel companion instead of letting it change our plans, and began the drive in to Milford Sound. The road in proved to be just as striking as the famed destination itself.

The new rainfall fed a countless number of waterfalls. They cascaded down every crack in the cliffs, some massive and roaring, others as slender and wispy as a tendril of smoke.  Higher up, the clouds took over and the cliffs simply disappeared the sky, leaving the lofty heights to the imagination. Though we feared we might miss out on some of Milford’s iconic scenery, the weather leant a brooding beauty to the landscape.


Fit for a Queen

Bounded by Lake Wakipitu on one side and the imposing wall of The Remarkables on the other, Queenstown is a big-budget resort town on the to-do list of nearly every New Zealand traveler. The center itself is a predictable collection of hotels, bars, cafes, and gift shops, but most people come here to play in the mountains and jump off of bridges or out of planes. Think Whistler Village on a Red Bull high. Alex had already gone for a skydive on the North Island and it was well out of our budget range so we opted to do what we do best— walk.

Queenstown's waterfront

The summit of Ben Lomond, a peak just out of sight from town, is a full day hike. The lower reaches of the mountain are shrouded in a dark, dense forest, interlaced with a web of mountain biking trails. Emerging onto the upper slopes, the forest abruptly gave way to low bushes in muted greens and deep reds. Ben Lomond loomed in the distance, looking imposingly big, craggy, and further away than we expected.

The Remarkables are an incredibly aesthetic mountain range, especially in morning light, and the sawtoothed wall of peaks constantly attracted our gaze across the valley. (more…)

Skiing and Speight’s: a week in the high country

High in the Southern Alps, a lonely road through Arthur’s Pass winds its way between collections of sharp mountains and along ice-cold braided rivers.

The high country here is starkly beautiful, the sort of place that’s breathtaking to drive through but doesn’t necessarily make you want to pack up and move there. Jagged peaks dominate the scene, the snow at their tops giving way to dry grasses, scree, and gnarled beeches covered in black lichen. A few sheep stations are tucked between the mountains, the sheep extra wooly and hardy looking.  It’s all very epic.

Several ski fields occupy the Craigieburn Range, an eastern outlier from the core of the Alps. New Zealand’s club fields have a no-frills reputation, where big terrain and a lack of crowds supercede the need for plush amenities. Rope tows and t-bars are the only upward offerings, often with a walk to get to them. Surprisingly rough single-lane dirt access roads cling to the edges of the mountainsides, with just a few spindly bushes between you and an unpleasant drop should your tires stray from the road. It made our local Vermont benchmark for a crusty ski area— Mad River Glen— look like Vail.

We started off at Cragieburn Valley ski club, which is well known for abundant and steep terrain, looking for a single ride to the top to begin a day of out-of-bounds touring.  Though we’d emailed to confirm the existence of the $15 ticket, a grumpy staff member was determined to turn us away, saying we weren’t “touring properly,” would “abuse the privilege,” and even insinuating that we’d steal their rope tow equipment. So, we tried out nearby Mt. Cheeseman, which had a huge array of backcountry options, friendly and accommodating staff, $10 single rides, and the exciting side bonus of many nickname opportunities.

After a t-bar ride to the summit, it was an easy ridgeline hike to the entrance of several long chutes and the snowy Tarn Basin. There was enough here to keep us occupied for days.

Tarn Basin.

One chute in particular caught our eye.  Spilling into a river valley off the sunny north side of the ski field, it quickly became our mission to ski it. We spent a day consulting with topo maps and the friendly ski patrol to determine the route out, and headed to the top the next morning.

The line was long, sufficiently steep, and held soft spring snow for 2,000 vertical feet. (more…)

Under gum trees and waterfalls

Just a couple hours outside Sydney, rivers in Blue Mountains National Park have carved enormous canyons into a lofty sandstone plateau, rimmed with red cliffs and carpeted with eucalyptus trees.

Though we’d planned an overnight hike through the valley, landslide damage had closed a good portion of our intended loop. Instead, we opted for two day hikes in different parts of the park.

The first day, we descended to the floor of the Grose Valley, picking our way carefully along ridiculously steep and narrow stone steps. At the bottom, the trail followed the river, winding through a towering blue gum forest, arid desert-like terrain and a lush, mossy woodland before leading to the bottom of Govetts Leap Waterfall.

This section of the forest reminded us of home.

Govetts Leap waterfall plummets 180 meters to the valley floor.


Back to the working world… for two days.

As part of our ultimate goal of having enough money in our bank accounts to return home, our plan for Australia includes finding several weeks of gainful employment. It’s part of the reason we came to this part of the world in the first place— Australia and New Zealand are some of the few countries that grant one-year working visas to Americans.  Nine months ago, we applied for Working Holiday Visas online, and it seemed like an excellent way to extend our budget and our travels.

Nine months later, in the midst of a cool, cloudy week in Victoria, the idea of working for the first time in more than four months was less appealing. Still, we took advantage of Australia’s amazing National Harvest Guide and found the nearest town with ripened fruit. A few phone calls and a drop by the employment office later, we had signed up to harvest apples for a few days in Cobram. It is a very small town on Victoria’s northern border where not much happens and, incidentally, there is little else to do but pick apples. Perfect.

As far as monotonous manual labor goes, it was a remarkably pleasant way to earn some cash. We showed up at 8 in the morning, slung a picking basket around our shoulders, and got to work. The apples were cold from the night’s chill and dripping with dew, but the broken morning sun soon warmed them, along with our fingers. We filled enormous wooden crates— worth $35 each— with crisp, tart Pink Lady apples as fast as possible. Before long, we could swiftly pluck two apples per hand and fill a crate an hour with ease.

Note the blurred hand indicating incredible picking speed.

Each night, backs and fingers sore from the day’s work, we’d return to our campsite and reward our efforts with tasty food and a $3 wine called Bowler’s Run, surprisingly good for the price. After two and a half days, we’d filled nine crates, and snagged more than a few tasty apples as bonuses for ourselves. Not bad for our first return venture into the working world. It felt good to be a contributing member of society again, and we look forward to mastering the harvesting methods of other crops.

Once the last of the fruit had been picked, we headed back south towards the ocean and soon merged with the Great Alpine Drive, another of Australia’s scenic roads. After watching the sun rise over a fog-filled valley, we entered Alpine National Park, home to some of the country’s tallest mountains. As the road ascended into the Australian Alps (nice, though not nearly as impressive as the European or Japanese versions), a few inches of snow materialized on the ground.

The view from Mount Buffalo at 7:30 a.m.

Near the top of the pass, a trail snakes off the road along The Razorback, a long, undulating ridge headed for the distant Mount Feathertop, 11 kilometers away. Though the trail was covered in snow, the sun shone down in a clear sky, and soon we were hiking in our t-shirts.  The open ridgeline provided extensive views of blue rolling mountains as the trail wound its way past alpine heath and snow gum skeletons, leftover from fires years ago.

It was an ideal way to spend a sunny day, and an excellent warm-up for our next adventure: a four-day backpacking trip along the Wilderness Coast in Croajinglong National Park.

Exploring Victoria: a road trip warm-up

The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia winds along nearly 250 kilometers of spectacular coastline, looking remarkably similar to California’s Big Sur. It’s an easy drive from Melbourne, and we elected to rent a car and get out of the city for a few days while our newly purchased car was tuned up. From the unfamiliar left side of the road, we watched the ocean crash against yellow cliffs and long, cold beaches.

Sometimes the road hugs the cliff sides, and other times it veers inland to pass under koalas perched in roadside eucalyptus trees or next to pastures dotted with dairy cows. Frequent turnoffs and trails down to the water provide enough diversions to fill a whole day alternately driving and hopping out of the car to explore. It was quite a nice way to take in the scenery, and a refreshing freedom after the restraints of public transport in Southeast Asia.

Erskine Falls, a short drive inland from the Great Ocean Road.

The coast reaches its southernmost point at Cape Otway, and from there eastward it becomes even more rugged. For the next 120 kilometers, it is known as the Shipwreck Coast— over 80 ships sunk off the unforgiving shoreline in 40 years during the 1800s. We walked down to Wreck Beach, where two rusted anchors are visible at low tide. After snaking through low bushes and wild-looking, twisted trees that seem to have jumped out of a Van Gogh painting, the trail broke out into open, wind-swept headland before plunging down steps to the beach.

From here, it’s easy to see why the coast is so treacherous. The angry Southern Ocean was stacked high with frothy waves, which were thrown ashore at jagged cliffs, creating the sound of a roaring jet engine. (more…)

Lazy days in Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw is a stunning small town nestled between towering karst mountains on the banks of the Nam Ou. Sitting on our riverside deck for hours a day, we watched leaves flutter down in the breeze, long painted boats motor past the village, and time float by.

The view west from our deck.
There was constant activity across the river, as people fished, maneuvered boats, chatted, and came down in the early evening to bathe.
A bike ride east of town brought stunning mountain views and choruses of “sabadee!’ from children who ran out to say hello.

Tham Pha Tok caves, a hideout during the Second Indochina War.

Sunset over the Nam Ou.

If you ever find yourself in Nong Khiaw, we highly recommend the riverside rooms at Sunset Guest House. The views are unbeatable!


Japan Through Five Eyes

First and foremost, our thoughts are with everyone in Japan right now affected by the earthquake. Having grown to love the place in our five weeks there, it is especially heartbreaking to see the devastation. It is an amazing country that you should definitely visit if you ever get the chance.

This is the first video in a series highlighting our fifteen-months across the Pacific. It’s 14 minutes long so get comfortable, grab a beer and watch it fullscreen if your bandwidth allows! Turning off HD will make for a faster load. Enjoy!

Feeling Small

Like their name suggests, the Japan Alps are massive— bigger and more extensive than any mountains I’ve ever seen. Steep, spired, and caked with snow at the top, they smooth into long open slopes with patches of beech, willow, birch and tamarack trees.  From Alaskan-style steeps to some of the best tree skiing in the world, they hold a staggering variety of terrain— all within reach thanks to an extensive lift system and open backcountry gates.


A warm welcome to the Japan Alps

The Japan Alps rise 7,000 feet above the valley floor and are right up there with some of the more impressive mountains ranges I’ve seen. Though the snow is wind-effected in spots, the forecast looks sunny and temperatures mild, so hopefully we can do some more exploring this week. Here are just a few quick pictures from a ski tour today with three fellow Americans at Hakuba Tsugaike. We were wearing t-shirts during the middle of the day, a nice respite from cold and blustery Hokkiado. (more…)

Skiing and soaking at Hakuginso Onsen

In thousands of places across Japan, rivers heated by volcanic activity spill into beautiful rock-lined hot springs, known as onsen.

Hakuginso Onsen is one of many located along the edges of Daisetsuzan National Park and the Tokachi mountain range, among the tallest peaks in Hokkaido. The picturesque lodge, built to house the onsen, also provides access to some of the best backcountry skiing on the island—literally right out the front door.

Our home for the week!


Powder and Pocky

If we had to describe Rusutsu in one word it would most definitely be “snowy.” It seemed to fall almost constantly here—big fat flakes, tiny wind-driven needles, fluffy swirling snow. In fact, there were probably only a few hours in each day when it didn’t snow.


It’s All True

Skiing in Japan is everything we expected it to be, and then some.  Unbelievably deep snow, perfectly spaced birch trees, pillows, and no one here to ski it.  This is a quick one teaser from our first day at Rusutsu…taken at 2pm.