Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Wide Open Spaces (by Karen Varga)

"Anything of importance in a man's life must take place beneath the open sky" ~ excerpt from the book 'Game of Thrones'

My body may be back in the UK, but my heart and soul are still at the incredible places that we encountered during our travels, flying free like majestic eagles under the open skies and immense beauty.

It has been both a mental and physical challenge to get back into 'normal' life after the incredible 7 months of travelling that I've just had. It's not easy to adjust from being outside 10 or more hours a day, 7 days a week, to being reduced to such limited sky time, especially having come back to winter! It's meant a change from being out and about every day - either hitting the crags from morning till sundown, or heading off on a long hike surrounded by magical scenery,  or walking our socks off to see all the sites a city has to offer, or even sometimes just chilling on a beach or lying on the grass in a park and reading my book - to sitting in an office 8-10 hours a day, and really feeling the limits on time for sport and outdoor activities.  

Spending the day under the open skies is what drew me to climbing way back when, and has kept me climbing for over a decade, and will keep me climbing for many more years I can guarantee you :) I can't imagine life without these wide open spaces where my soul is free to soar and I feel alive with energy and vitality. I've also found that the people I meet and friends I make through climbing (mostly) share this same appreciation for the great outdoors, whether it's to climb or hike or just soak up the goodness, and this is another big reason why climbing has become such an integral part of my life.  

Over-population, development, cultivation, expansion ... it's happening at a rapid pace all around us.  But there are still loads of breath-taking places to experience, all you have to do is go! Here's some ideas for your next trip ...

1. Torres Del Paine, 4 day trek - Patagonia, Chile (Trekking)

Getting here does take some initiative and planning, but is worth the effort 100-fold, no make that 1000-fold! To get there you fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, and then take a bus to Puerto Natalas. You can choose to do the trek full-board, staying in refugios each night, or half-board, or go hardcore style and camp (but remember this means you've got to carry camping and cooking gear with you!). We did the easiest option which was full-board, and made our booking through Fantasico Sur.

2. Yosemite - California, USA (Big wall trad, bouldering, hiking) 

Super easy to get to - you can fly into either Los Angeles or San Francisco, hire a car and within 3-5 hours you're there!  I had heard a lot of horror stories about unpleasantness due to crowds in Yosemite, but I didn't find it that bad. I actually think they have organized it really well considering the sheer volume of tourists that pass through each day, which is inevitable considering how spectacular the place is. I would definitely recommend staying in a campsite out of the valley, and just driving down into the valley to do whatever you might want to do down there. This way you're not constantly surrounded by the crowds and so it doesn't feel so bad.  They cater for the organized and not-so-organized with pre-booked and first-come-first-served camp grounds/ RV parks, as well as providing different campsites from the full-electric to the primitive to the hike-in only sites. Definitely a place every breath-taking-view-seeker should go to!

3. Bryce Canyon - Utah, USA (Hiking, horse-riding)

This place was simply incredible.  I just happened upon it while Googling different national parks in the USA, and it did not disappoint, in fact it was one of the highlights of the entire trip.  Your closest fly-in city would be either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, and from either it's only about a 4 hour drive. The canyon offers a range of hiking options as well as horseback riding, and since it's not as deep as something like the Grand Canyon you can actually walk down and around the canyon floor which I really liked.

4. Rifle - Colorado, USA (Sport climbing)

This spot was recommended to me by a climbing buddy and definitely lived up to it's name as a world-class sport climbing destination.  The only downside that I found was that many of the routes were quite polished, with some being so bad that climbing on them was simply unpleasant. The climbing is in a narrow gorge so not quite what one would class as a 'wide open space', but you're still surrounded by some lovely scenery and a bubbling river, and the campsite provides an uninterrupted horizon to horizon sky view.

Refer to my previous blog for details on the climbing, how to get there, where to stay, etc.

5. Moab - Utah, USA (Hiking, think some trad climbing too)

Moab is a place that provides it all ... a charming little town with great atmosphere and range of accommodation options to suit all preferences, while being surrounded by the most gorgeous and dramatic scenery I've ever seen. Within less than an hour drive of Moab you have Arches National Park & Canyonlands National Park, and an hour or so further there is Goblin Valley State Park & Colorado National Monument. Moab is not too far from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, and it's super easy to combine a visit here with a number of other national parks like Bryce Canyon, The Grand Canyon, and Antelope Canyon, as well as loads of climbing options like Rifle, Maple Canyon, and American Fork. 

Canyonlands National Park
Arches National Park

Arches National Park

6. The Grand Canyon - Nevada, USA (Hiking, horse-riding)

To be honest, Bryce Canyon topped The Grand Canyon for me, but that is purely from a visual point of view.  When I read about the history and stats of the Grand Canyon it totally blow my mind and opened up a whole new appreciation for what I was seeing.  The downside for me for the Grand Canyon is that any walk you do within it literally goes straight down, and the straight back up again.  And unless you are equipped to camp overnight you never get to the canyon floor as you can't hike it in a single day.  So the hikes are a little boring in that you're just going down and up, but the view is spectacular and the geology so rich that it is worth the visit.  For getting there, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas are all nearby and the drive there would be through some stunning countryside so just sit back and enjoy!

7. Antelope Canyon - Arizona, USA (Ooo-ing and aahing)

Even before our trip started I had seen photos of the most incredible flowing rock formations on the front cover of books and such like. I never knew where they were from but I knew I wanted to go there! I'm not even sure how to describe Antelope Canyon ... the best I can do is compare it to Alice in Wonderland, where everywhere you look you just cannot believe your eyes.  There is an upper and lower canyon, which from what I could ascertain from all the blogs I read, offer the same magnificence.  The actual canyon is not very long, and the tours through it take approximately 1 hour, with some extra time added on for driving there and back. Unfortunately as with many accessible attractions of this splendour you are one of many wanting to experience it, and you just have to accept that and move on.  You can only enter the canyon with a Navajo Nation tour group, of which there are many.  We chose ours based on the length of the tour, their prices, and which canyon they offered (we chose the lower canyon).  The canyon is near the town of Page in Arizona, 3 hours drive north of The Grand Canyon.

8. Red Rocks - Nevada, USA (Sport & trad climbing, hiking)

This is one magical place! Just half hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip and you're gazing up this ochre & rust coloured landscape. It offers awesome sport and trad climbing, and hiking, as well as the perfect break after a couple days of Vegas craziness. For climbing, the one thing to be aware of is that the rock is a very porous sandstone and requires a drying out period of 2 days after heavy rain. Definitely time your visit too ... summer is VERY hot and there is extremely limited shade. As sun-hardened South Africans we managed to climb still, but it felt like we were being baked in an oven :) Super easy to get to from Las Vegas, you can even stay in a cheap Vegas hotel and drive out each day, but we preferred to stay in the Red Rock Canyon campground which was absolutely stunning. 

Refer to my previous blog for details on the climbing, how to get there, where to stay, etc.

9. Sayward Forest Canoe Route - Vancouver Island, Canada (Canoeing)

I never realized how big Vancouver Island is until we did this canoe trip up north.  One morning as we were gliding across a glass-like lake I pointed to some snow-capped mountains far in the distance and asked my brother (who lives in Victoria on Vancouver Island) if those were the Rockies over on the mainland.  Nope, he replied, those are on the island! 

This canoe trip was such an adventure and pretty easy to organize too.  We hired canoes from an outfitter about 45 minutes from our launch point.  The biggest logistical problem was firstly finding a car for hire with roof racks, and then actually fitting two canoes onto the roof.  One canoe is easy, two a bit more tricky ... but nothing a family of adventurous Vargas can't overcome :) It's a 4-6 day circuit and you don't have to pay anything to do it.  There are campsites all around so you can plan your day according to distances you're wanting to do. Some campsites are on the mainland and offer facilities, while others are on the islands in the lakes and are more primitive.  However even the primitive ones still had wooden tent platforms, tables & benches, and fire pits. This is a true Canadian experience and if you're ever in Vancouver or visiting the island then I would highly recommend it!    

Bear food cache!

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