Tag Archives: adventure

The Seven Year Itch – Getting a Permanent CSM Bib!

Hello friends! Seems like my blog posts are becoming fewer and farther between, but I assure you it is not for a lack of my being active. On the contrary, I’m still up to my tricks, training and racing whenever the urge strikes. However, I find these days with other platforms around, I often just scratch out a short FB post instead to summarize some of my exploits. However, sometimes, it’s still worth me archiving results in a more permanent way with a full story. This post it such a time, as it will talk about my recent [successful] completion of my 7th Canadian Ski Marathon completion in a row as a Coureur des Bois. Having 5 gold camp finishes under my belt scored me a permanent bib this year! Read on for the whole story. Continue reading The Seven Year Itch – Getting a Permanent CSM Bib!

Nepal: Sights and Sounds of the Cities

Well, it’s high time that I put fingers to the keyboard and started sharing with you all some of the stories from our epic trip of a lifetime to Nepal last fall. I wasn’t sure where to start, so to kick things off, I focused on getting the pictures posted on flickr. Luckily, that work is done, and you can see ALL the pictures in the collection. As you’ll see below, to make it as easy as possible, I managed to whittle down the ‘best of’ shots to just under 200! A tough feat in such a picturesque part of the world. You can scroll through them below, or better yet, watch the gorgeous full-screen slideshow (click the little “play” icon)! At any rate, this, my first post in the series, will focus on the relative hustle and bustle of the start and finish of our trekking, which found us in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Read on for the details!

Best of Nepal

As many of you are aware, I have decided that the mountain goat is probably my spirit animal. I’m always most relaxed when surrounded by imposing peaks. Some years ago, several people suggested I should make my way to the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. It’s taken a few years to act on the advice, but last fall, for our 2 year anniversary, Deanna and I decided to do just that, and spend the better part of a month in the high Himalaya, and experience the true culture and beauty of Nepal.  We booked a trip with a local tour operator based on recommendations, packed our bags, and made our way to the Nepali capital of Kathmandu.

While cities the world over may seem substantially the same, any of you who have spent time in far flung corners will know that there are clear differences in all of them, from sights, smells, and sounds. We arrived in the late evening after over 24 hours of transit, so after a full nights’ rest, we were ready to explore and see the very sprawling city of Kathmandu. Luckily, our guide arranged for a driver and for him to personally give us a tour of the city. With only about 24 hours to see the capital before driving off into the more remote regions, we had to be efficient.

Colourful Wood Carvings

In our opening day, we managed to see major sites such as the Monkey Temple, the Garden of Dreams, and a traditional temple / monastery. More importantly, we did a lot of wandering through the market areas and just generally taking in the sights. We were particularly interested to see what sort of obvious damage was still visible from the earthquakes earlier in the year. We didn’t have to look far, as there were lots of clear signs of rubble, and of people still recovering. However, there was also a clear sense of perseverance all around us. Probably the most unfortunate view was the destruction of the Boudhanath temple, which is one of the largest Stupas in Nepal, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Of course, it is only one of many treasures that suffered great damage.

Reconstruction Work

In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the core of Kathmandu was a very special park that we visited, the ‘Garden of Dreams’. Although relatively small in size, this greenspace in the centre of the chaos is a great place to just relax for a little bit. It has apparently also become a go-to destination for young Nepali folks to go for a ‘date’. Easy to see why. Although you pay a small admission fee, once inside, it’s easy to find some peace in the gardens.

Flowers in Park

As a real treat for us though was the fact that at the end of the day, our guide (and company owner) actually invited us to his family’s home to share a meal with them. This was definitely something not to miss, as we got to see how the Nepali live in their own homes, and be treated to some great home cooking of a traditional Nepali dish, Dal Bhat. It’s a meal we’d have many many times over the course of the next few weeks! To cap off the night, we pored over the maps and itinerary for the upcoming trekking while sipping hot tea. All in all, a pretty amazing first day!

Tweaking Plans

We did spend another day in Kathmandu, but not until the very end of our trip, and by then, our focus was on picking up a few souvenirs, enjoying the last couple meals there, and reflecting on our whole trip. However, before that, we had spent a couple nights in the city of Pokhara, the largest city in the Annapurna region. Whereas Kathmandu was very chaotic and noisy, imagine Pokhara being Ottawa and Kathmandu being Toronto. Still large, but much more laid back. This is a true tourist town, with countless people in town either finishing off their trekking, or gearing up to head out. Since we were all done our trekking, this was our rest and recharging point. In fact, the first stop for me was to find a barber shop to have a hot shave, getting rid of my mountain man beard.

Stroll in Park

It’s worth noting a few things about Pokhara. First, it is a lake-side town, so it great options for heading out on the water and admiring the peaks around you. Unfortunately for us, it was a bit overcast when we were there. Secondly, thanks to a national fuel shortage (compliments of a blockade by India), things were even quieter than usual in the core of the city, with only limited vehicle traffic. Of course, that actually meant a few headaches for us as well (e.g. having to fly from there to Kathmandu due to lack of buses / cars). I think this is a town we could have easily spent an extra few days in.

Mountain View from Pokhara Hotel

As it was, we spent most of our time on foot wandering around the waterfront area, thanks to a plethora of bars and eateries. However, the stop wouldn’t be complete without a trip to a place called the World Peace Pagoda, an imposing structure high in the hills surrounding Pokhara. Getting there would have been a challenge, were it not for our sense of adventure. We ended up renting bicycles for half a day and making the trip on two wheels. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on it being so HOT and hard a ride up the winding mountain road. However, we were rewarded with great views of the Pagoda, as well as the entire city of Pokhara sprawling out beneath.

Looking out over Pokhara

In addition, having the bikes gave us a chance to visit a few of the other more far flung sights such as Devi Falls. As always with a bike, it also allowed us to explore the whole region with no fixed schedule or expectations. We meandered around here and there on side streets, getting somewhat mixed up about where we were, but stumbling across plenty of cool opportunities to interact with local and see the back alleys. Good thing we felt safe out there.

The Falls

While I’m always the first to tell you all that I don’t like cities, these two Nepali destinations would be on a ‘must see’ to any trip to Nepal. Firstly, you can’t avoid (nor should you) Kathmandu on any flights to the country. The entire Kathmandu valley is massive in size, with the population of this city of about 1 million sprawling out in an area of about 50 square kilometers. Pretty much all the buildings are below 5 stories, so you  can imagine it spreading out. Secondly, Pokhara is truly the ideal ‘chilling out’ town of Nepal. There is enough of an ‘east meets west’ vibe here, that there are endless options for entertaining yourself and people watching. For those reasons, this seemed like a good way to start the chronicles from Nepal. But much more exciting to me will be sharing the next major sections of the trip: the actual trekking! Stay tuned for those stories coming up.

Slideshow of the Sights and Sounds of Nepal Cities

Arrival at Kathmandu Hotel

CSM Level Up: GOLD!

A week has gone by. The soreness has passed. The tally of toenails I’m likely to lose is up to three. I’m ready to tell my tale, and I almost think I’m ready to contemplate doing it all over again next year! Yes, I’m speaking about the Canadian Ski Marathon. The yearly pilgrimage between Lachute and Buckingham. 160km over two days of pure classic cross-country skiing bliss. This year I was tackling my Coureur des Bois Gold pin. This entails doing the entire thing with a pack carrying all your food and camping gear, and sleeping out under the stars on a hay bale with other CdB Gold skiers. Read on for the whole story.

Several of you will remember that in the past 2 years, I covered the event for Get Out There by putting together videos of the event (Check out my 2012 videos for Day 1 and Day 2, and 2013 videos for Day 1 and Day 2). This year, I wanted to focus on skiing, to ensure success, and hadn’t planned on covering it. However, at the last minute, I was asked to be part of a media team covering the event ‘semi-live’ from the trail. Of course I said yes. The downside was that it consumed more time than I hope fussing with cold electronics, but the upside is that I have a few pictures and videos to share. Check out my little slideshow below!

The night before the event started in earnest, I got to finally check into the ‘Gold Dorm’ in Buckingham, Que. This is the place nearest the start of the event, and is reserved for only the CdB Gold Participants. It’s not actually anything special, just a school gymnasium, but the company is exclusive and was a good chance to meet up with some people I knew and get the skinny on CdB gold strategies. We had to get up at around 4am the next morning, so I was in bed around 9pm, excited and nervous for the weekend. I’d been successful on my previous 2 attempts, but every year is a challenge, and the route reverses direction. This year was the ‘hard’ route. Easier (shorter, flatter) 1st day, followed by the harder (longer, hillier) 2nd day. All I could do was sleep well and be positive.

Day 1 Map and Profile

Day 1 Map

The next morning, I was up and ready with everyone else, and heading to the cafeteria to grab breakfast. I met up with the event director, and chatted with him a little bit before fueling up. We would see each other a little later in the day, under much different circumstances. I packed up all my gear, and got dressed to head out for the bus. That was when I hit my first snag. I was at the back of the crowd waiting for buses. As a result, they were all full, and a group of us got stranded and had to wait for a bus to make a return trip from the start line. Unfortunately, that meant we would actually miss the official start of the CdB Gold group, set for 5:40am!

Rather than worrying too much about, we rolled with it. After all, we only set out about 5 minutes after them, but it meant that we were not in the ‘pack’, and the CdB silver hotshots would be bearing down on us quickly. At that time of the morning, it is still pitch black, and we ski by headlamps only, travelling carefully on the hills we encounter.

The first day was split into 5 sections, and out opening leg was relatively easy and only 12km long. Pulling into the first checkpoint, the ski and terrain around us was just starting to lighten up. I had something to eat and drink, but didn’t bother re-waxing my skis yet, as they were in pretty good shape still due to amazing snow conditions. The second section was another ‘easy’ one and 13.6km in length. I got through that one with no problems, and could see this was going to be a beautiful weekend. The sun was finally rising, and the skies were blue overhead. It was great seeing all the skiers, and I was making good progress and the pace was great. I pulled into the second CP in very high spirits and made a little video, taking time to eat, drink, socialize a bit, and re-wax my skis. I left with a big grin, not realizing I would be back there in a bit…

The third leg was where things took an interesting turn for me. This section was an ‘intermediate’ level, and was 16.2km long. For me, however, it turned into a 24km ordeal. The first 2k were fine. Then, I passed a little hand-painted sign stating “narrow trail 2km”. Not a big deal, it just meant we’d be going single file. Up and up and up we went, making slow progress, but in nice conditions. At the top of this hill (in 1.8k or so), we inevitably had to descend. I should also mention that by this point, we’d actually passed 2 or 3 other skiers returning on foot with broken equipment. I made  a mental note to be very careful to not end up with them.

Anyway, back to the descent. It didn’t look super-hard. There were tracks heading straight down, and thought that would be the way to go. I let the skiers ahead of me get a little gap before I started off. Well, my skis were gliding great, and by staying in the tracks, I was bearing down fast on them. I had to try to snowplow of step out of the tracks to slow down. That didn’t work so well. In very slow-motion in my mind, I realize my left ski (and body) were heading for the trees on the trailside (as it was quite narrow). I managed to avoid the trees with my body, but heard a “crrrrrack!” and suddenly found myself airborne. I knew what had happened, but was still processing it.

As I flew through the air, a thought crossed my mind. “Hmmm, cross-country ski bindings don’t automatically release, do they? My left ski doesn’t seem to be attached to my foot.” I hit the ground, no worse for wear thankfully, and fearfully stomped back up the hill to the little group of 2-3 trees where my left ski had gotten wedged. It wasn’t in two pieces, and I was hopeful. Until I fished it out. The binding (and entire top layer of the ski) had been torn off the base, as you can see in this picture.

Busted SkiUpon retrieving my broken ski, I started to evaluate my options. My first thought was to head to the bottom of the hill and fix it somehow to keep going. Once at the bottom, realizing that the binding was actually completely broken too, I realized there was just no way I’d be able to ski out on this. In a snap decision, I realized i’d have to hike out of my predicament. Yeah, 4 km, with a big pack, carrying broken skis, on snow that I kept punching through and sinking into while trying to avoid literally hundreds of skiers coming the opposite way. Luckily, one of them was my lovely wife, so I did manage to get a nice kiss and some words of encouragement. I wasn’t giving up, but distinctly realized this might be it for my dreams of a gold finish for this year.

When I finally got to the last checkpoint, 40 minutes had easily gone by. I went straight to a ski tech on site. He took a quick look and confirmed I was screwed. Then, someone said ‘go see the Swix guys, they can fix anything’. Nope. Another confirmation of my horrible position. It could possibly be duct taped, but that would mean having the tape in the grip zone, making things really bad. Then, my guardian angel appeared. A man with a piece of cardboard hung around his neck with a hand-written event number and the words, “The Prez” on the sign.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Tennessee Williams. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

This was none other than Boomer Throop, the actual presidenc of CSM. After a few moments consideration, he offered, no, insisted, I take his skis. One glance confirmed from me that unfortunately, he used NNN bindings, whereas mine were SNS. Completely incompatible. “Well, what size are you?” he asked. I replied 8.5. “Perfect, mine are 11”. Well, in my world, that isn’t a perfect fit, but could work. Before I could even think about protesting, he was taking off the skis, boots, AND his socks, standing barefoot telling me to “take the f*cking skis, and don’t say another word. Get out there”. Another volunteer ran off and found me another pair of socks, bringing my total to 4 pairs of socks. I layered them on, slid my own orthotics into the ski boots, and stuck my foot in. They were nice and warm, and I was able to get them tight around my feet, albeit with quite a bit of room in front of my toes.

So that is how I spent 134 km of the 160 km event. Skis that were too long, with an unknown kick zone, boots nearly 3 sizes too big, and 4-5 pairs of socks. This would make for quite a finish if I could pull it off. Needless to say, when I started back out, things were a bit awkward, but I WAS SKIING! That’s all that mattered. I hadn’t given up, and I now had the MEANS to finish, I just needed the right SPIRIT. My parting words to the president were that the only way I could think of repaying him for his kindness was to actually compete the event and get my gold, which was precisely what I inteded to do. Unfortunately, by the time I set out again, I was well over an hour back. All the golds, silvers, bronzes, and even tourers were gone by, and meeting the time cutoffs later down the trail were weighing heavy on my mind. As such, I put my head down and just focused on skiing as efficienatly and quickly as i could. I made steady progress, eventually catching and passing lots of fellow skiers on the way, but lots of these tourers, meaning they weren’t trying to meet a time cutoff. As such, they were quite happy to encourage me on and move aside if needed. For their part, the skis were pretty decent. I had a heck of a time controlling them in some situations due to the longer length, but I was getting decent kick and glide. For that, I can probably also thank the very forgiving snow conditions!

Coming out the other end of the 3rd leg, I was happy to make if to the next checkpoint feeling good. I was now up against the longest leg of the day at over 20km, and the looming cutoff. Without even looking at the time, I set about grabbing a quick bite and drink, and re-waxing the skis, taking a complete guess at where exactly to apply the grip wax. Knowing that Boomer was a bit bigger than me (who isn’t?), I assumed I could go pretty far forward, even with my pack on. I guessed correctly, as starting back out again, things still felt decent. I kept pushing hard the entire leg, uncertain of exaxctly how much time I had, as i was afraid to look. It was indeed a long and demoralizing leg when you are on borrowed gear, but I did eventually find myself at CP4. Time to spare to cutoff? Nearly 50 minutes!!! My hard pushing paid off, but now I worried I’d put too much into the effort. I vowed to take the next and final leg easier, as it no longer mattered how long it took. The only thing to do on arrival at gold camp was to eat, drink, set up camp, wax skis, and sleep. I knew I’d have friends there, and likely a reserved spot.

In spite of taking it ‘easier’, I was still feeling competely drained by the time I hit the gold camp turnoff near Montebello. On the plus side, I’d never seen Deanna again, which meant that she had easily completed Day 1 herself, and was likely gliding into the finish for the day. This lifted my spirits a touch, and I set off on the final 2km slog, with a few other skiers. Happily, I can report I was by no means the last camper in either! Sah-weet! Another nice thing on arrival was seeing my buddy James basically waiting for me. He grabbed my skis, and showed me to our camp, where the fire was already roaring. I dropped my pack, and headed off to claim the 2 hay bales that were assigned to me. One to sit on at the fire, the other to spread out as an insulative mattress. Luckily, even though the sun had technically set, there was still some light, and I got mostly settled in before it was dark.

Day 2 Summary

Day 2 Map

After getting myself organized, I joined everyone else around the fire, trying to dry my ski clothes, eating and drinking as much as I could, while swapping war stories with my fellow skiers. Turns out I wasn’t the only one with a bad day. One of our friends had had an accident, and dislocated his shoulder, needing a medical evac. So things could have gone much worse for me. However, I was completely and utterly exhausted, and quite concerned about the next day, which was the harder of the two days of skiing! It didn’t help when I was assured I would absolutely hate getting up the next morning in the cold trying to make food, break camp, and head out by 5:30am. Yikes. I decided to live for the moment, and tried to just have a good time around the fire, which was quite easy with the fine company I was sharing the time with. We were amongst the latest people to still be up, finally turning in around 9pm, after filing a quick video, and dropping Deanna a line to see how she was.

I’d love to report that I had an amazing sleep, but I really didn’t. I tossed and turned, trying to keep my ski clothes warm and dry with me in the sleeping bag, and also recharging both my GPS watch and cellphone. I wasn’t overly cold, as temperatures hovered around -12c, which all things considered, was pretty good for gold camp it turns out.I perhaps got 1.5 hours of fitful rest before hearing my alarm go off at 4am, and trying to figure out just how i would get ready for the day. In the end, I decided to just get out of my bivy, and stand outside in the head area while I got dressed. That actually worked out quite well, and I was soon bundled up again, and bustling around getting breakfast ready and packing up my campsite. I’d also decided to throw on a 5th pair of socks for this day, as the pain on the tops of my toes was getting bad, and wanted to try padding them a bit more. I had waxed the skis the night before heading to bed, and was ready to take off. All the campers were making their way to the exit area to be scanned out and start their 82 km day of skiing. I felt pretty stiff and sore, but optimistic.

One of the funny things about CSM is that although you are skiing with hundreds of others, you are, for all intents and purposes, on your own. Everyone has their own pace, and most people just opt to ski at the pace they want to, which means you may find yourself with people for a little while, but then one person will speed up or slow down, or stop for a break, and you’ll be on your own. As such, all my camp mates basically left at different times, and I only bumped into them again along the route at checkpoints. I don’t mind too much though, as I like the solitude at times anyway. Pacing was going to be the word of the day anyway. The ratings on the legs for the 2nd day were intermediate, intermediate, hard, intermediate, and finally, easy. In other words, the first 4 legs would be hard fought. Lots of long climbs, steep descents, and road sections. My plan was to just ski at a pretty steady pace all day and see where that left me for the cutoff at the end of the 4th leg, which for today was 3:30pm. It certainly didn’t seem an impossible task, given that we still had great conditions.

I could explain in detail all the legs, but there is no need. I skied well. The snow was great. The climbs were at times longs and brutal, but I’m actually a bit of a masochist, and felt a purity in all the climbs on the day. The didn’t bother me at all. I’m good at just powering up hills and getting through them. I’ve developed a pretty good mental toughness over years of racing, and I guess it pays off now and again. I was making reasonable time all day, and pausing at each checkpoint, letting the wax techs take care of my borrowed skis while I ate and drank. I wanted to make sure I didn’t end up bonking later in the day. At various points early in the day I got to ski with Dave, Lise, Nathan, and Annie, all four of which are amazing skiers, and were doing the whole course with the CdB group, but skiing at a pretty good pace. The legend of my story had also propagated through the event, as a number of times, when I’d be chatting with people about my day, they’d inevitably ask ‘oh, are you that guy that had the broken ski and had to borrow skis and too-big boots?’. It was pretty funny. Some of these people even remembered seeing me the day before as I was hiking out, and were impressed to see me still in it, let alone being able to bounce back and get my Gold CdB in the process. Truth be told, that’s probably the main reason I pushed so hard. I hate failing at anything, and this one was basically 3 years in the making!

You might be now wondering how close I was with the time cutoff the second day. Well, amazingly, I still had about 1 hour and 20 minutes to spare at the cutoff. In other words, it was no problem at all. In fact, this year, even with the problems, was the most comfortable times I finished with. Granted, the gold skiers did get a 2 km head start, and a 30 minute lead as compared to the bronze CdB people, but I was still mighty elated when I saw the time we had left. Rest assured, that does NOT mean this was an easy day by any stretch of the imagination. Heading out on the final leg, it was a great feeling. There was only about 12 km to go, and I’d wrap things up at a decent time. I decided to push hard anyway, in hopes of being there with lots of time to shower and be ready to greet Deanna. I will say though, the final 3 km felt like they took forever. After speaking to several other skiers, we are convinced they lied about the distance of the last leg. We are pretty sure it was about 3 km longer than advertised. That may not seem like a big deal, but when you’ve mentally prepared yourself to be done in 2 km, then see a sign saying 5 km to go, it makes a difference!

Regardless, I finally found myself on the final steep downhill run before the finish line, with the smell of sausages (and victory) in the air. They called my name as I crossed and I realized I’d done it. I was now a Coureur des Bois Gold finisher at CSM. That felt great, and exhausting. An organizer found me shortly afterwards to reunite me with my busted ski, and collect my borrowed gear. What a tale eh? I had a sausage at the finish, then made my way to the shuttle bus to head to the gym where the luggage and awards were being dealt with. Unfortunately, that is when I also learned that Deanna had sadly missed a cutoff on day 2, and was on her way to pick up the car. I felt crushed for her, but also extremely proud of what she managed to accomplish this year, and the improvements she has made. Tackling the full CSM is a monumental challenge, and there are loads of stories of people not making it. But she killed the first day, and was having a great 2nd day too. She has already vowed to return to get her “G-D Bronze!”. And I believe her.

That pretty much does it for this story. As I type this, I’m still nursing some pulled muscles in my groin, resulting from dealing with the skis that were too long and having to herringbone up the hills. I’m also nursing my toes back to health, and see about 3 toenails that are dead and will eventually fall off. But I have GOLD! That won’t fall off! Will I return? Quite possibly. After all, if I do just 4 more gold CdBs, I get a PERMANENT BIB! They always have something to keep us coming back! Hope you enjoyed my tale. I’m off for one weekend, then back in action for the Mad Trapper Snowshoe Race Season Finale. Till then, take care of you and yours, and see you out in the snow!

Following the Trail of “Jackrabbit” Johannsen

Still Smiling after 160km

A warm welcome back to you all. I’m back from another epic odyssey over the past weekend. Although the Canadian Ski Marathon is not a race, strictly speaking, I’m still putting under my ‘race’ cartegory. This is mainly due to the fact that there are strict time cut-offs, which mean many skiers don’t actually complete the entire 160km distance. Ergo, it is a race against the clock in my mind :-). I also wish I got paid to race, because I would have gotten overtime. Over 20 hours outside in the bitter cold, and up at 3am and 4am! Seems like more ‘work’ than my job! At any rate, it was an amazing event, and I hope you’ll all read on for my personal take of the entire event. I covered it for Get Out There Magazine as well (videos appended at end), and took a bunch of pictures. Should give any skiers out there a great idea and reason to try the CSM next year!

Pictures from Race

So just what exactly is the Canadian Ski Marathon? Well, for starters, it is a quintessential Canadian winter activity. The event was envisioned as, and strives to continue to be, one of the toughest point-to-point cross-country ski events of the world for those who want it to be that. Hunh? What does that mean? Well, the event takes place over 2 days, and consists of 10 individual sections adding up to a total of 160km of amazing skiing. However, you can enter in a variety of different categories. Tourers are those who choose to take part in the event but only ski a few sections. You can choose as many sections as you like, and are recognized for the number of the sections you actually complete. For the masochists of the world, you can sign up to tackle the whole event in the Coureur des Bois (CdB) category.

However, in the CdB category, there is more stratification. If it is your first attempt, you automatically go in the ‘Bronze’ category, where your only goal is to complete the entire distance within the time limits. If successful, the second year you are entitled to sign up as a ‘Silver’ participant, with that you must not only complete within the time limits, but must also carry a pack weighing a minimum of 6kg for the whole thing. Now, if you are successful as silver, you can now try to attain ‘Gold’ status on the 3rd year. Once again, you must finish within timelines, and must carry a minimum of 6kg on your back. However, this time you also get the ‘privilege’ of sleeping outdoors on a bale of hay for the Saturday night. In other words, your pack MUST contain all you need to survive from Saturday 4am till about 5pm Sunday including food, sleeping gear, and ski supplies! Me? Well, as I AM a masochist, I was enrolled in the CdB Bronze category. So let’s now go through my weekend fun.

Day 1 Stats

Not to belabour this point, but the entire weekend was forecast to be COLD. By that, I mean temps which likely averaged around -15 most of the weekend with the early mornings obviously being colder than that. Why does that matter? Well, the week before, I spent nearly $80 on waxes suited for warmer snow. Ha ha. Oh well. They’ll be used some other time.

On Friday night, Deanna was kind enough to drive me to my luxurious digs… a gym floor in Papineauville. Yup, that would be my home for the next 2 nights. We checked out the opening party at the Chateau Montebello (and saw how the other half lived), then I returned to the school. Still had to do some waxing and gear preparation before trying to get some sleep before the 3am wake-up call, which came all too soon. Breakfast was devoured by 4am. From there, final ski prep, and piling on buses to the start line at Buckingham.

At that point, I tried shoving hot packs into my ski boots, eat some food, and get my camera gear ready for the start while watching the first 2 waves (Gold at 5:40, Silver at 5:50) get underway. It was obviously still pitch black out, so we started the event with headlamps. I think that was my favourite part of the whole event; skiing in a long row of headlamps in the still of the pre-dawn morning. Very peaceful. We also had some light snow falling, so it was absolutely beautiful. Things were so nice and peaceful that falling into a nice pace was very easy, and before I knew it, we passed by the ‘2km till next CP’ sign of the first section. Everything was working extremely well, and I was absolutely in love with the experience so far.

The first CP was the real introduction to the organization that went into this event. The army of volunteers (which yes, included the army!) took great care to ensure every detail was addressed. At each CP, we got scanned in electronically and physically marked off on the bibs. All CPs had food (usually dry fruit, soup, bananas and cookies) and drinks (warm water, honey water, Gatorade). Some CPs also had waxing stations, where you could drop off skis to be re-waxed for you while you ate / drank, etc. Of course, the key was to get back out as quickly as possible. This served two purposes. The first was to stay on schedule to make the cutoffs, but more importantly this weekend, it was to stay warm! As I type this, I still haven’t gotten full feeling back in two of my fingers!

Back to the trail! With the day now in full swing, it was time to make some serious tracks. I popped in my earbuds and asked Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) to sing me to the finish. Of course, that was still about 65km away, so it would take a while. My pace felt good, and without doing too much math, I was pretty sure I’d have no troubles with the cut-offs. I passed my time really taking in the world around me. Even though there were 1500 participants in CSM, and you are never really alone, you still have a lot of time to reflect. It was so invigorating to just let my mind wander, appreciating everything life has to offer, including the ability to do something like the CSM. The ski trails were amazingly good considering these are not official ski trails.

In fact, each year, CSM starts anew, with local farmers and landowners granting permission to have the snow groomers, and eventually the skiers, pass through their fields and hills. We are fortunate to have their co-operation. Even more so considering this has been happening for 46 years! The longest section of Day 1 was over 21km, and it was a tiring one. This was rated ‘intermediate’, and at the end of it, I was still well on schedule. I had to reach the 4th CP by 3:15pm, and found myself there around 2pm. Awesome. I lingered a bit longer there, allowing the pros from Swix to do a nice, 3-layer wax job with a sticky klister base under a glorious sun.

I skied the final 13 km with a smile on my face, knowing I had all but clinched day 1. There were some pretty awesome hills to climb through the day, but also a lot of fun, fast, and yes, sketchy, descents to make. It made the whole day interesting. Also, it was always impressive skiing with the CdB gold folks, navigating all the challenges with sometimes ridiculously large-looking backpacks! They definitely are the champs of the weekend! The finish line was at Chateau Montebello for the day, and about 15 minutes after finishing, the exhaustion hit me, and I just wanted to get back to the dorm and sleep.

Day 2 Stats

Unfortunately, sleep couldn’t come too quickly. There were a number of things to get done on Saturday before bedding down. First there was the matter of a quick, and sometimes scalding shower, followed by tucking into a big pasta meal at the cafeteria. Clothes had to be spread out to dry, new clothes picked out for the next day. Food stores in my pack replenished, batteries for all devices charged up (I had 2 cameras on the trail and my GPS and iPod, all of which needed charging). Turns out -20 is not a forgiving temperature for batteries and electronic devices! After all that, I HAD to turn my attention to my skis, which basically had to be completely re-stripped of all waxes and built back up, but the glide waxing and the grip waxing. This took about an hour of effort, in a room packed full of others doing the same. The stench of chemicals and waxes dancing in everyone’s nostrils as they worked feverishly to get the ‘perfect’ wax job, which would eventually get destroyed in the opening 20km or so of the next day! However, once done, I thankfully got to crawl into my sleeping bag after swapping a few stories with fellow participants.

Thankfully, the bus for day 2 was a mercifully short ride, so we got to ‘sleep in’ until 4am. Ha ha ha. Getting up was made even more difficult as several of my ‘neighbours’ had opted to not get up, thereby forfeiting their CdB bronze attempts. Seeing them sleeping soundly made it hard to pour myself out of my bag and pull on ski clothes again. However I had a mission, and would not fail. Not completing this adventure was NOT an option in my mind (are you surprised?!). Breakfast was a nice french toast with ham affair for me, and before I knew it, I had packed up all my stuff (which was being transported to the finish) and was sitting on the bus again.

Sunday was even colder than Saturday, but I felt even better prepared for it (and added an extra layer on my head). I didn’t have to fuss with anything at the start, and instead crowded around one of the 6 propane heaters to await the start of our wave. No snow this morning, just a still, cold air around all of our anticipation. On the menu today was another 80km of skiing. However, whereas on day 1 they were all ranked ‘easy’ and ‘intermediate’, today’s sections were all ‘intermediate’ and ‘hard’, including the infamous ‘Rouge Valley’ section with all of it’s many, many hills. This would be tackled on the 3rd section, so it was literally the ‘hump’ of the day, and the only real challenge to getting that little bronze pin I was coveting.

On the audio menu today? Well, I opted to listen to my catalogue of Depeche Mode tracks, including lots of hard-thumping remixes. This was definitely more appropriate to the physical challenges that lay ahead of me. The start felt a little slower than the first day, but that was to be expected, especially since we were heading uphill right away. First stop of the day was actually ‘Gold Camp’, where the CdB folks had spent the night. They had left about 25 minutes earlier, and all that was left were massive fires of the loose hay burning. It was a very cool sight. With the inspiration of that vision, I picked my pace back up and started picking my way through many of the skiers, eventually catching up to many of the Silver CdB, and Gold CdB skiers.

Throughout the day, I knew I was moving slower than I had the previous day, but that was not unexpected. I dug into my reserves and my endurance racing base to just steel myself and keep the pace moving. In the hills of dreaded section 3, I met a friend of mine and slowed to chat with him a while, before making the decision to keep my own pace and press on during the climbs. I’d been told that it is very hard to actually ski with anyone, as everyone has their own ups and downs. It can be the difference between finishing or being cut off to not go your own pace. Smile planted firmly on my face, I kept on skiing, knocking off the checkpoints. At the 3rd CP, it was only 1:05pm, giving me 2hrs 10mins till cutoff to cover about 14km. Awesome! Seemed like it would be easy.

I hadn’t accounted for the fact that my pace had slowed way down. Now, to be clear, I was in no great danger of failing, but I was still surprised when I got to CP4 at 2:45pm, a mere 30 minutes before the cutoff. As a result, I bypassed the volunteer waxers and just did my own waxing. I headed back out at about 3:05pm, now safe in the knowledge I had basically done it! Only 13k to go. Yeeee-haaaaawwww!

The final 7-8km seemed to take forever. Even though the track was good, and weather was good (and had even warmed up a bit), it was a real slog to keep pushing. I’m pretty sure my body did NOT want to ski much more. I was definitely on autopilot now. Finally arriving at the finish area, I pulled out my little camera to film the arrival at the finish. A smallish crowd of 20 or so felt like hundreds to me. Having anyone there cheering was a huge boost to get across the line. I kept the skis on for a few minutes longer to pose for a few finish line shots, but for all intents and purposes, it was DONE! I had done it! 160km, and a nice little bronze pin to show for it!

The closing banquet was a collection of skiers in various states of exhaustion, a hearty meal of lasagna, chicken, and other goodies, while the emcee tried to utter a lot of words while the masses generally ignored him. However, he recognized that the night was more for the skiers and sharing of their stories with each other, and was gracious about the fact that he was being ignored! I did a fair bit of story swapping myself, learning more about things like the rogue horse who was running loose on the trail, and about broken skies repaired at CPs, etc. A nice finish to the whole event. At 8pm, I got on one last bus which took me back to Gatineau and the end of the entire event.

Looking back now, I had a bit of a revelation about this event. Usually, in a long event, you have periods where you really ask yourself why you are doing it. More specifically, in almost every adventure race (particularly 24hr+ events) you hit a point where you hate it, and don’t know why you’re there. However, I can honestly say I never hit that point once during CSM. More often than not, I’d actually be smiling, and just marveling at what I was doing, and how great it felt. NO, it wasn’t easy. Not by a long shot. But I WANTED to do this. And I succeeded. And boy, did that feel great! I would highly encourage you to try the CSM, or parts of it, next year, if you are at all into skiing. It was a well-run, and very beautiful event! But, no time to rest for me, I’m 2 days away from my first Loppet using Skate Skis! Off to rest (oh, and celebrate Deanna’s birthday!!!)

Day 1 Video Review

Day 2 Video Review

Dromedaries, Dunes, and Deserted Ruins

Sunrise in the Sahara

Welcome back to another, and perhaps my final post on our adventures in Morocco. My apologies for the slight delay between posts. I was off to Toronto for a conference, and had other family obligations. At any rate, on the plus side, we now have all of our pictures put up on flickr. I’ve even added a folder of videos as well, with a few clips that I shot in various places. For this post, I’m going to take you on two unique journeys. The first will be a camelback ride out into the dunes of the Erg Chebbi, where we spent the night in a Berber camp. The second part of the story will be our exploration of the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, an expansive site which was one of the farthest trading posts of the Roman empire. Both of these little adventures was pretty amazing, and this was the first time that either of us had ventured by camel into a desert, and spend the night under the stars in the desert. Once you’ve had chance to peruse the desert pictures and Roman ruin pictures, hop on back and read the whole tale.

Our camel journey started in the far southeast of the country. We set out from a little town called Merzouga. If you look at a map, you’ll see that it is situated very close to the Algerian border, which is actually closed, and there are rather severe consequences if you were to cross it. Suffice to say, we didn’t cross it. The long dusty road trip to Merzouga took us through a number of other little Moroccan towns, in one of which we bought some pretty cool black marble candleholders with fossils in them. We didn’t actually get to Merzouga until near the end of the day, which was the plan, as it meant we’d be making our camel trek through the sunset and dusk. On arrival to the little outpost, we immediately saw a long string of camels laying disinterestedly in the sand, their legs tied so they couldn’t wander off.

There were 6 of us in total in our group. Deanna and I, the two Scottish ladies we’d climbed in the Atlas with, and a young Swiss couple that arrived by car. After buying some water to last us till the next day, and a quick mint tea (of course) we were led to our camels. The Berber guide chose a camel for each of us. I was given a camel that was already laden with some gear. Apparently, they figured I weighed less, and would therefore be easier on my camel. We were up and heading out in no time flat.

I will tel you this right now. Camels are NOT what you’d call a ‘graceful’ animal. They move awkwardly, and make a myriad of strange noises (owing to their constant digestion), and also source some rather interesting odours, not unlike rotting eggs at times. While they may look rather cute and aloof from a distance, they are a very interesting beast up close. Also, straddling one of these wide beasts, on a steel framed ‘saddle’ of sorts, isn’t that comfy either. Owing to that, it didn’t take long before half of us had chosen to ride our camels in some sort of side saddle style.

The ride itself was pretty unique. Our Berber guide (who was on foot and guiding our ‘camel train’) led us up and down and all around a series of small dunes. We wandered for almost 90 minutes in the fading light until we came to our camp for the night. We’d passed by a few other desert wanderers on our way. By the time we arrived at camp, the light was pretty much all gone, but not so much that I didn’t notice that where we dismounted was a minefield of camel dung, which presents itself as slighly larger than walnut-sized pellets, not unlike chocolate easter eggs. It was everywhere! Obviously they bring groups every night in varying numbers. There were already a couple other tourists there who would be camping, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. That is, until the next ‘camel train’ arrived, laden with a group of about 20 Europeans, all of whom seemed to be smokers. Ugh. So much for a peaceful night in the desert.

Luckily, nothing prevented me from leaving camp armed with my camera and wandering away on my own for a bit. The desert is a pretty surreal environment. It’s rather disorienting to be surrounded by a sea of sand. After we all had a big meal, the youngest Berber invited us to join him in a trek up the highest nearby dunes. Perfect! We set out, and it was immediately clear he intended to be the first and to shame the tourists with his skill. Not his day though, as ActiveSteve kept up step by step the whole way up. The two of us eventually lost everyone far below us. We summitted the first big dune, and then he pointed to another one that we also scaled. Here, at this highest point, we finally stopped to wait for the rest. Surprisingly, it would be fully 30 minutes before the main group caught up. By then, we’d had a nice chat, and I had decided to head back down with Deanna, who had also pushed hard to secure 3rd overall (not that it was a contest).

The height of the dunes was quite misleading. Once at the top of the big dune, it was clear just how tiny all the other were below us. However, in the camp, the high dune really didn’t seem all that tall. Of course, this just begs the question now, doesn’t it? Will I ever choose to tackle the Marathon des Sables? Given that they run during the daytime highs, I’m guessing no, but who knows?

The next morning, we got up before sunrise to re-mount our camel friends, and ride off into the dunes to experience the sunrise in the desert. It was a pretty great morning. We’d been lucky with good temperatures and virtually no wind. Back at our starting point from the day before, we had a quick breakfast, and everyone went their own ways. For us, that was back to Marrakech. It was the end of a great adventure for us.

Stork nest in Basilica

So, now, how about those deserted ruins you ask? Well, this was at a site known as Volubilis. This is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site that has undergone significant restoration. This was a significant trading post, whose main exports included grain and of course olive oil. Indeed, during the 5km walk to and from the ruins that Deanna and I made from Moulay Idriss (where we were staying), we wandered through many an olive grove. As with most of our trip, the weather was once again spectacular. Hot sun beat down on us as we wandered to the entry gate to pay our small admission fee which worked out to less than 2 dollars. There were very few tourists on our arrival, so we had the vast ruins to ourselves. Well, us and the many guides touting their services near the entryway. We passed on the pricey service, opting instead to use our 2 guidebooks, which between them had maps and lots of explanations of the area. That way, we weren’t limited to just a 1 hour tour, but could take our time and poke and prod all over on our own.

Exploration was the name of the game here. We started at one end of the site and very gradually made our way under the hot sun to all corners of the ruins. What looked like a fairly compact site froma distance soon revealed itself to be a fairly large area. Much of it is still under thick vegetation, and we figured they will spend several more years unearthing more treasures in the area. I’ve been to other small Roman ruins in other travels, but nothing like this. We were truly able to get a sense of the kind of village life that these Romans may have lived. We wandered through the residential quarters of the workaday people, meandering over to the city center, with the Forum, the Arcade, the baths, the arch, etc. Finally, turning right, you are lead up the grand boulevard where the rich folk and administrators lived.

This rich area is where you see a lot more of the details and features that make these ruins a real standout. There are mosaics in these areas are well over 2000 years old, yet still retain some of their vivid colours. It is truly remarkable to imagine just how old these mosaics and ruins are. The craftsmenship and ingenuity displayed is remarkable. Possibly one of my faviourite little details though was a manhole cover that was there. As with today’s, it was round, and had a few slots on it. However, it was of course made of stone, and has been walked on for many many centuries. Beneath it, a Roman water system used to distribute water to the houses and fountains. Just amazing.

After we’d had our fill of the ruins, we headed to the on-site cafe for a quick bite to eat before our return 5k walk to the village. Simple sandwiches to keep us fuelled. The fateful question was of course ‘do you want tomatoes?’. To which we answered yet. These were dutifully washed, and sliced for our meal. Very tasty too. Unfortunately, it’s what you can’t see. We figure that the water (sourced from who knows where) used to clean it was tainted, because for the next 24 hours, we were both pretty much horizantal, except for the fact that we had to catch a train and move on to Rabat. At one point, it was so bad that I left Deanna at the hotel and ventured out to find a doctor or pharmacist to get us drugs, which are both plentiful and don’t require perscriptions if you’ve got the cash. These straightened me back up, but unfortunately for Deanna, she remained quite ill for well over a week, prompting a visit to a Canadian doctor on her return as well, and more drugs. Oh well, makes for great memories and stories, and apparently is a great crash diet!

Given the current length of this post, I reckon this is a good place to leave you all. If I had to now summarize the whole trip for you all, I’d say it was awesome! Morocco truly does have something for everyone, and you can choose to focus on that one thing, or dabble in a bit of it all, which is what we did. The one thing we couldn’t fit in was a visit to any of the sea-side resorts which are well known as well. So if beaches are your thing, you have that option as well. Everyone always asks “Would you go back?” when you visit somewhere like Morocco. First instinct is to say a heartfelt YES!, but in truth, my own interest lies in seeing as much of this world we all live in as I can. Therefore, while I absolutely loved Morocco, there are so many more countries to see, and my travel time is limited, so I’ll probably move on to some other locale next :-), but I do highly recommend everyone visit Morocco if the chance presents itself. The rich history, amazing architecture, warm people, great sites, and relative inexpensiveness make it a great option.

The Highs and Lows of Morocco

Early Dawn Light

Welcome to the second post detailing some of the awesome experiences Deanna and I had in Morocco. This time, I’ll take you a bit off the beaten path, and talk about two particularly awesome experiences. Namely, the high of trekking and climbing in the High Atlas mountains, including sumitting the highest peak in North Africa, as well as the lows of heading to the depths of the deepest caves in North Africa, the Friouato Cave system. For Deanna, these were particularly fun, as she had never climbed a mountain before or gone cave exploring. In another post, I’ll visit a first for BOTH of us, but this time, it’s all about Deanna’s firsts. If you check into flickr, you’ll eventually find pictures from both, but for now, only the Atlas Mountain pics are up. Eventually, they’ll all be in the collection though. For now, I’ll just give you a bit of the blow by blow in written words. Enjoy!

It’s no secret that I love the mountains. I’ve now seen some pretty incredible ones in several continents. This includes the Rocky Mountains of Canada, a few different peaks (including the mighty Aconagua in South America) on travels in Argentina and Peru, the Alps of Switzerland, and the high mountains in New Zealand. Every time I spend any time in the mountains either alone or with others, I get a great sense of my place in the world. I love the clean air, the majesty and ruggedness of the environment, and the feeling of being basically a speck of dirt on this great planet we inhabit. The feeling is compounded even further after being subjected to the chaos of busy cities. This is exactly the circumstances in which we started our high Atlas trekking. We’d just spent a night in Casablanca and a day and night in Marrakech, which is the very definition of chaotic in the centre of the Medina.

We awoke early on a Monday to be picked up by a taxi drive who shuttled us from Marrakech to the village of Imlil, nestled in the foothills of the High Atlas. Our ultimate objective was to summit Mount Toubkal, which at 4,167m is not the tallest mountain I’ve ever climbed, but the highest of north Africa. We’d be spending 3 days and 2 nights trekking. We had a guide, a muleteer, a cook, and at the last minute, learned 2 other trekkers (from Scotland) would be joining us. The weather? Absolutely amazing. Bright, sunny, and warm all 3 days. So no need to dwell on that. Obviously we’d have done it no matter what the weather, but no rain was certainly a treat compared to my mountain experiences last time in Africa at Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru.

Our first day wasn’t too bad. We spent probably 4-5 hours total trekking, heading gradually up the valleys and around some of the smaller mountains to get to our eventual ‘refuge’ for the first night. Along the way, we stopped for our lunch, which as per usual on these types of trek, was amazing. Fresh prepared food with fresh ingredients. And of course, they always give you way too much food. We were getting to know our guide and the two other crew on the trip, and although there was a slight language barrier, we all got along well. Day 1 was definitely impressive for the sights, and knowing that the best was yet to come put me in high spirits. The High Atlas are impressive not only for their rugged beauty, but the fact that they completely surround you. Very rocky and barren, with many criss-crossing trails in some spots. The area has been used for a very long time for grazing sheep and goats, and has even played a strong part in the history of the country as a stronghold for keeping enemies at bay.

Instead of tents, we were lucky enough to be able to use a refuge for sleeping. Basically, sleeping mats in an open room with blankets. With no electricity and early sunset, our night ended pretty early. I grabbed an ‘alpine shower’ in a drip of cold water, and tried snapping pictures in the light of a near full moon, but still hit the hay around 9am. Good thing too, as our next morning started bright and early. This day, we’d have at least 6 hours solid trekking. It started kinda chilly, but passing waterfalls and having the sun rise and light up the mountains around us made it a joy. We also had a very steep switchback climb up a scree valley to keep us on our toes. Deanna and I had struck out on our own and were between the two helpers, while our guide was farther back with the another trekker. It was nice to just be totally on our own out there. The sights of day 2 were even more impressive than day 1, and I was clearly starting to fall in love with the Atlas mountains. Definitely high on my list of favourite treks. Once again, we stopped for lunch, and our spot had a perfect view of our conquest, Mount Toubkal, looming across a valley from us high above. We could also see our camp for the night, further down a valley. Sadly, we’d be descending to it, only to have to climb back out for the summit.

Once at the Toubkal Refuge, we talked about summit plans. Most climbers start at first light, get there late morning, then head back down valley. However, I convinced the team that we should head out around 2am in order to be at the summit for sunrise. This was met with some resistance, but I’m quite sure if you ask everyone now, they’ll agree it was the right call. The climb up, although in the dead of night, was amply lit by the light of the moon. We had the trail completely to ourselves. It wasn’t an easy climb, but we’d given ourselves the right amount of time. We actually put climbed the last bit before the sun even rose up. There was early morning glow, but no sun yet. The summit? Well, we had that completely to ourselves as well. It was absolutely spectacular in all respects. Of course, it was also quite cold, so we didn’t stay super long, but at least 20 minutes. Eventually I’ll have some video up.

Our return path was also different from most people. I’d also convinced us to take the ‘south col’ route down. Pretty treacherous at the top, and then heads down another scree valley to meet the main trail far below. It is also the final resting place of a crashed airplane from the 1970s. The debris field was quite large, with interesting bits of twisted metal all around. It was only 8am as we were heading down the last bits, but we’d already put in a solid day of hard climbing. However, we stil had another 6 or so hours of trekking to get us all the way back to Imlil. We were all a bit tired, but just plodded on, one foot in front of the other. Deanna and I were the only trekkers in our group to actuall hike the whole thing, and we were pretty strong. I was very proud of Deanna in the mountains, and can’t wait for the day we head to Nepal to do some serious mountain trekking :-). Lunch on this day was in a holy village in the valley heading back to Imlil. It was a great time to take a little crash and lay in the sun. Just the re-charge we needed to take us to the end, and in time to watch one of our mules go a little crazy! Ask me in person some time about that.

With the mountains out of the way, I now take you all the way to the northeast of the country, the Friouato Caves, reputed to be the deepest in North Africa. To quote one of our guidebooks “The sense of descending into the entrails of the earth is exhilarating.” We can attest to that. However, this was no multi-day affair. We basically made this a day trip from Taza. The trip to and from was just as exciting too. We left our hotel in the morning, used a grand taxi to get us there, then planned on hitching a ride back to Taza to catch a train to Fes. We didn’t realize that getting a ride back would prove challenging. But it was. The caves are NOT on the beaten path, so walking along the road we saw almost no cars, and we were 27km or so from town. One car going the other way even stopped and gave us fruit as we walked, which was super cool. Eventually, we DID get picked up (after several km trek in the hot sun). This fellow was exactly what I hoped. His car was actually barely running. He didn’t want to stop, as the car might not start again, but since it was mostly downhill, he took the chance. We had great conversations on the ride back to town, and he refused payment, offered advice, and even pointed out restoration work being carried out by UNESCO in the area. All this contributed to Deanna’s decision that Taza was probably her favourite place. A quick filling lunch, with more friendly locals, and we caught our train to Fes.

But what about the caves you’re wondering? In a single word, cool. Not breathtaking or amazing, but cool. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing a couple other cave systems now, the best being the Lucky Strike caves in New Zealand, and the level of care they take inpreserving those sort of put Friouato to shame. The public access to the Friouato caves is well worn with foot traffic, and there is a fair bit of just mud. Also, many of the stalactites and stalagmites have been damaged, which was sad to see. Kind of how you feel when you see someone break a piece of coral reef that you know took decades to grow. In spite of that though, there were some amazing sections of curtain stalactites, water pools, and just general grandeur to take in. You have the option of just going to the mouth of the cave for one price, or you can pay to have a guide walk you 3km into the cave, then retrace the steps. Obviously we got the guide. We are unlikely to ever return, so spending the extra money was worth it!

I will say this for these caves. They are massive. Compared to all others I’ve been in, these ones boggled the mind. For the entire 3kms, we were in pretty wide open cathedral-type spaces. In other caving trips, there was lots of crawling through little openings, and lots of narrow passages. Not here! Just wide open spaces. Of complete darkness. We’d shown up pretty early in the morning, so once again, we had the place to ourselves. In fact, we sort of woke up both the cafe / shop owner and the guide. We basically made them open up the caves for us. Not sure how they liked that. However, our books said it was open at 8:30, and we showed up at 9am, so we didn’t feel too bad! Overall, I’d say Deanna was also pretty impressed with this experience. She had no idea what to expect, and I think it’s safe to say that it blew her non-expectations out of the water. Just the descent into the cave system entry was really cool. Over 500 steps carved in rock from the top to the bottom, created in the 1930’s by French spelio-dudes. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to take any pictures that would do it justice.

So there you have it. The highest highs and lowest lows of Morocco for us. Next up in the series will be a story about a true first for both of us, and another of the highlights of the trip. Till then, hope you all enjoyed this post, and check back for the next installment!