Seek Adventure

Island Lake and the peaks of the Ice Lakes Traverse in the distance.

Island Lake and the peaks of the Ice Lakes Traverse in the distance.

wow, haven’t posted in a while. Here is a story that I wrote in my journal about an adventure last summer…

 

“Seek Adventure” – Micah Dash, Alpinist

Death beckons me as I look between my legs at the empty space below. That’s why I’m here in the first place. A man died up here a few days ago. He was an ultrarunner, a brother who takes inspiration from these mountains the way that I do. I had never met him, but his death of course saddened me. I ran up here to the ridge crest above the Ice Lakes to see where he had died. And to think about death.

For about the last year I have worn a bracelet on my left wrist composed of a string of tiny skulls carved by hand out of yak bone. I bought it in Namche Bazaar in Nepal, on a cloudy and rainy day. At the time I was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which inspired me to spend quite a bit of time contemplating the nature of death.

When people say things like, “I was contemplating the nature of death,” our culture usually reacts by thinking that they are prone to committing suicide. Our culture, to me anyway, seems to be in no way curious about death, instead we are neurotically afraid of it. It seems that at our most fundamental level our culture strives to be entirely deathless–we will do anything to fight against our own and other people’s death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead instead taught me that death is another step in the process that is life, a transformative step. It told me that there is opportunity in death, there is a moment when our souls get to choose whether to be reborn into this world once again, or to realize that we have experienced enough and that we can instead escape it. The message to me was clear–escape the fear of death and you are truly free to live life to its fullest. I did not want to forget this epiphany, as it feels like I so often do with other sudden realizations and insights, so I bought the bracelet of yak bone skulls, and still wear it to this day to remind me to live my life without fear.

The beginning of the ridge that forms the Ice Lakes Traverse, Pilot Knob in the distance.

The beginning of the ridge that forms the Ice Lakes Traverse, Pilot Knob in the distance.

Most of the greatest people I have known in my so-far short life have seemed to possess the ability to live their life without fear. I suspect that the man who died by falling off of Pilot Knob, near where I now stood, was one of these rare and blessed individuals. He was up on this jagged, loose, and magnificent orange-tinted ridgeline trying to complete a route known as the Ice Lakes Traverse. It is a somewhat well-known, although rarely completed, linkup of many beautiful mountain peaks that surround the famous Ice Lakes, although one typically only undertaken by ultrarunners, who have the speed and endurance to complete such an arduous task. I heard that he had even completed the traverse himself one time before. The Ice Lakes Traverse had in fact been on my list of objectives, or ultrarunning adventures, that I wanted to complete during the summer and his untimely death was unfortunately a perfect excuse for me to wake up early and finally tackle it.

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Mustang Trail Race

Running across a bridge in Mustang – Richard Bull photo

“Every place distills an atmosphere–a state of mind–that can more easily be felt than described, a something that overshadows all activities and bathes all events in a peculiar light. Some places have a feeling of sleepiness, others one of loneliness and desolation. But every place in Mustang was, I felt, characterized by dynamism and an enthusiasm that infected the entire population.” – Michel Peissel, “Mustang”

“A rocky cave in the wilderness was the home of your spiritual Father. A deserted and solitary place is a divine abode.” – Marpa the Translator, from “The Life of Milarepa”

The wall of Lo Manthang on a fresh morning after snowfall – Richard Bull photo

The idea of visiting the forbidden kingdom of Mustang first entered my mind as I descended from the summit of the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit last year. The Thorung La is the highest point on the famous circuit and from it’s 17,000+ ft. summit the views in every direction are expansive to say the least. Technically, as one descends into the town of Muktinath far below you are entering the Nepali district of Mustang, but the heart of the kingdom, the area which the country restricts access to – Upper Mustang – remains mostly invisible behind 4,000 meter passes and peaks to the north. As Paulo and I walked slowly down from the culmination of our Annapurna trek, I peered restlessly off into that dry and desolate land hidden from view, feeling as if I could perhaps stand a little higher on my tippy toes and see what lay beyond the barren dirt hills, catch a glimpse of a magical land which had no reality to me but was only a concept. I don’t know why I was drawn to look yearningly in that direction in the first place, except perhaps for the mystique the area generated amongst the other Annapurna trekkers. The high cost for a permit and the low number of trekkers allowed in by the government of Nepal turned it into a fable around evening dinner tables in guesthouses from Chame to Manang. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Mustang: while very few had visited it, they all had heard that it was amazing. But our trail bent off in another direction, which we eagerly pursued in search of more adventure and growth, and Mustang was filed away into the very large mental bin titled, “places I would like to go one day.”

Flash forward almost exactly one year and I was poised to enter Upper Mustang from the town of Kagbeni, a green farming oasis on the edge of the wide stony Kali Gandhaki river gorge. The water carves its way through the hills and mountains blocking the way into Upper Mustang, yet still bends out of sight just above town so that the mystery of what lies to the north prevails. The circumstances which led to me being there were so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that I can only percieve them as a long tangled thread perfectly described as, “what is meant to be.” If I had set out with a firm intention to visit Mustang within a year it seems likely that other plans, obligations, new decisions – Life – would have inevitably intervened, as it always seems to do. But instead Life decided that my path needed an adventure through Mustang in order to develop the way that it is supposed to, and so the many random ocurances and decisions that could only be seen as related after the fact worked their magic, and I stood alone in Kagbeni awaiting the group with which I would venture into Mustang.

A happy group of runners above Kongcholing Cave on stage 4. L to R -> Mira Rai, Matt Moroz, Upendra Sunewar, PhuDorjee Lama Sherpa, Nicola Bassi, Marco Baretta, Andy Wellman – Richard Bull photo

The reason for me going to Mustang was an event which was right up my alley – the Mustang Trail Race. This second year race winds its way through the highlights of the land in eight running stages spread out over the course of nine days and covers roughly 200km of rocky desert on very runnable trails mostly at elevations of around 4000 meters. As the culmination of a seven week long “Nepal spring training running camp” of my own design, it was the perfect chance to inject a significant amount of volume into my training (the most running I had ever done in one week) as well as some intensity and speed – and I would get to explore Mustang! Buzzing with anticipation would be how I would describe myself at that moment.

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The Dream is to be Healthy and Balanced so that I can Run

Pumori, Khumbu, Nepal

“The first step of the dream-change process…is to define what we want, to make certain that it is a dream, not a fantasy… An essential next step is to give the dream energy. Constantly bring your dream out into the light of day. Think about it, meditate and journey on it. Talk about it with everyone you meet. Shout it out. Share it with the Earth, the sky, the clouds, the sun and moon, and with all the plants, animals, and minerals of the Earth. Give it voice and song!” – the shaman Manco, from The World is as You Dream It, by John Perkins
“The energy created by our dreaming is like air. It travels everywhere. Your ability to use this energy is limited only by your dream of its power. Your faith. Our dreams can affect everyone and everything else–if we energize them with enough power.” – the shaman Manco 

There was a specific moment which occurred this past year while trekking in Nepal when I truly came to realize what running means to me. My brother Paulo and I walked downhill in the morning sun along the main trail through the Khumbu region, the trail leading away from Everest Base Camp, which we had left that morning. As we strolled along we talked–musing, dreaming, contemplating–as we usually did. We were essentially ‘homeward bound’ as we were now headed out of the mountains on our final trek of the long three-month trip, so our thoughts naturally journeyed forward to what we would do next and where we were going. Within a few short weeks we would split and continue on following our own individual paths. Both of us intended to keep on traveling for many months. I had an entire itinerary planned for the next many months: the beaches of Thailand, then the northern mountains, on to the Indian Himalaya, Sri Lanka, then New Zealand… It was a dream trip that anyone would be envious of, but instead of looking forward to all the amazing sights and places I would see, I was instead pre-occupied with a dream of heading home and spending the summer in the mountains of Colorado, simply running.

Paulo walking down the trail where this story takes place, between the towns of Gorak Shep and Chhukung in the Khumbu

It didn’t make much sense, and I voiced my confusion to my brother in what I thought was a rhetorical question. “Why can I only think about running when I have so many amazing travels to partake in?”

By his immediate and pointed response, it seemed that he knew exactly why: “You need running to be who you are.” Continue reading

Crazy Thoughts on Knowing Your Future and New Years Resolutions

Moonrise over a long line of peaks – san juan mountains, co

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” – Kurt Vonnegut

At a family get together in an apartment building in Denver just after the Christmas holiday I stood on the outdoor patio ten stories above the ground and looked west, towards the skyline of the Rocky Mountains which are visible from just about anywhere in Denver. The sun had already gone down, indeed much of the sky was already black, but the sky behind the mountains still shone bright yellow, perfectly outlining the long, semi-jagged line of peaks stretching from Pikes Peak far to the south, Mount Evans in the middle directly above Denver, to the obvious pyramid of Longs Peak to the north. A long line of black bumps on a skyline, it reminded me of something…

Recently on a long drive home to Colorado from spending a couple weeks in California I was listening to a book on tape to make the hours pass more rapidly. The book was “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. In it the main character, named Billy, is kidnapped by aliens from another world – specifically the planet of Tralfamador. The Tralfamadorians had mastered the art and physics of long distance space travel and took Billy to their planet where they put him on display in a zoo. To the Tralfamadorians, the most interesting thing about humans was that they could only view time in a linear fashion. They themselves were capable of seeing time all at once: they could view everything that would happen during a person’s lifetime just by looking at them. When Billy tried to warn them about the dangerous attitudes and tendencies of humans, they were unfazed, as they claimed to already know how the universe would end – they would destroy it. Anyway, the way that Vonnegut chose to describe it, when a Tralfamadorian looked at a person, they saw its entire life stretched out as a timeline, like looking at a “long ridge-line of mountain peaks.” And so staring at the long line of mountain peaks still faintly illuminated above Denver, I thought about Time. Continue reading

The Experience that was Meant to Be – DNF at the UROC 100k

“Your outer journey may contain a million steps; your inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now. As you become more deeply aware of this one step, you realize that it already contains within itself all the other steps as well as the destination. This one step then becomes transformed into an expression of perfection, an act of great beauty and quality. It will have taken you into Being, and the light of Being will shine through it. This is both the purpose and fulfillment of your inner journey, the journey into yourself.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now


“YOU SHOULD ALWAYS GO FUTHER THAN YOU SHOULD GO” – painting on the wall at Cafe Mobius in Silverton

I walked slowly and gingerly through the mud and melted snow which made up the Grand Traverse trail along the top of Vail Mountain, pain and stiffness torturing me with my every movement. The late afternoon light was exquisite–warm, yellow, comforting. The wind blew gently from the snow covered Mount of the Holy Cross on the horizon to my left, over my head, and on to the similarly adorned and equally as beautiful Gore Range across the valley to my right. I was somewhere around 45 miles and 8 hours into the UROC 100k trail race and I had just decided to give it up, I was walking to the next aid station where I would drop from the race. Surprisingly I felt totally at peace with the decision and knew that this was exactly what was meant to be on this day. I happily plodded along in the sun, watching the hawks soar overhead, and trying to understand all the lessons that this experience was supposed to teach me…

I had entered the Ultra Race of Champions about seven weeks prior after a lengthy discussion with a newly made friend, Edward Sandor, at a table in Cafe Mobius in Silverton, on a dreadful day where it was pouring rain outside. We had started up a conversation after noticing that we were each runners, something which was pretty obvious as we were both wearing running clothes. He hails from Minnesota and is a seasoned ultra-runner, touring the mountain west with his wife Alicia and their dog, running crazy long mountain trail races along the way. I took the opportunity to try to glean any nuggets of wisdom I possibly could from someone who runs much further than I typically do. The most prescient of these nuggets was that if you wait until you feel you are ready to run crazy long ultra races, you will never do it, cause really you are never ready. You just have to pull the trigger and jump into the deep end, and as far as he was concerned, a person couldn’t possibly do so soon enough. The conversation eventually ended with him telling me, “I will be extremely disappointed if I hear you didn’t end up running UROC!” So, buoyed by his belief in me and suckered by his “wisdom,” I registered a few days later.

ready?

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Solo in the Weminuche

“Mountain peaks are special places that can build energy in whomever sits on them.” – James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy
“The eternal present is the space within which your whole life unfolds, the one factor that remains constant. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Power

Living your life completely in the present moment is a lot easier said than done. To dwell constantly on the details or events of the past, or to look forward relentlessly towards the future seems to be the pretty common human condition. It seems that either the present moment is not how we wish it was because something happened in the past that made it the way it is, or that the past was so much brighter than this moment, we just wish we could have those times back. Or on the flip-side, we can’t wait for what will happen to us, we just wish it was the future already, christmas can’t come soon enough, and this moment is just one to be endured on the way towards that rosy future. Then again, perhaps we are anxiously worrying about the future because we don’t know what will happen and don’t feel like we have enough control, and so can’t be happy right now because of our self-induced stress and tension. But to be present in the now is the teaching of virtually all the spiritual traditions, and it makes perfect sense, because it is indeed true that nothing ever happens any other time but right now, so why not embrace the only time which actually is?

For the past few weeks I have been trying to find a place to live in Silverton while camping out of my car in a nearby valley. With the constant logistical challenges of daily afternoon and evening rain, trying to store food in a cooler, cook stoves breaking, varmint invasions, and not enough money for the amount of eating out and drinking I found myself doing just for the luxury of being indoors, I slowly began to lose my acceptance of the present moment, which I found more and more uncomfortable by the day. I found myself yearning for a future in which I had a roof over my head and a kitchen in which I could cook food, or sometimes spent time dreaming about the past, when I actually had a home and all the material possessions which make our little human nests so comfortable and convenient. The blissful joy of not having a true care in the world, no matter what was actually happening to me, which I carried within myself upon coming back from Asia slowly evaporated, but I was not present enough to watch it happen, rather, it just happened, and I was left frustrated.

But then I did find a home, a large and comfortable home which is exceedingly cheap to rent, does not have a leaky roof, and has a plentiful kitchen and even a refrigerator. The inconveniences of weeks past were now solved, but the undiscriminating joy and bliss had not returned, because I did not realize that they had even left. Granted, I was not unhappy, had not reverted to my old mr. grumpy pants ways, it’s just that something minor had been misplaced without knowing it. Luckily I have learned to listen well enough to the voice in my head which often seems, and very likely is not, my own voice, which was pretty emphatically saying, “Go backpacking!” So into the wild I went…

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The Mobius Strip

“The Möbius strip … can easily be created by taking a paper strip and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip together to form a loop. The Möbius strip has several curious properties. A line drawn starting from the seam down the middle will meet back at the seam but at the “other side”. If continued the line will meet the starting point and will be double the length of the original strip.” Wikipedia

Arrow Peak reflected in the surface of a pond along the Colorado Trail.

Meditations, visions, yearnings, intuitions – all conspired to draw me here to Silverton, Colorado. Forces pulled me here from the other side of the world in a series of events that made no logical sense and ended up costing me almost all of the money I had saved for traveling. And yet, in my moments of greatest clarity I realized that logic has nothing to do with making the decisions that really matter, or it shouldn’t anyway. Lists of pros and cons, factors weighed against each other in some mathematical formula which will somehow lead to the “correct” decision should be discarded completely. This is the old way of thinking about what we are doing, where we are going, or what we should do – the new way needs none of these things, and is not bound or contained by any meticulousness or “reason.” The new way knows what needs to happen, where needs to happen, who needs to be met, and the only true action that needs to be taken is to be sure to stay in the current, not to get dragged off into a swirling, stagnating eddy. Bumping down the river, rock to rock, being mindful to pay attention to where the current bends and twists so as to keep moving forward, progressing, learning. An open heart is the guide…This is the new way, my new way…

Vestal Peak and the Wham Ridge bathed in sunlight.

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Soul Rebel – Trekking the Khumbu

“If you’re not living good, I beg you to travel wide, travel wide.” – Bob Marley, Soul Rebel

“Feel them Spirit…I rule my Destiny.” – Bob Marley, Put It On 

As Paulo and I walked out of Namche Bazaar on a stunningly clear morning towards the west and our eventual destination for the day of Thame, we looked up at the mountains surrounding us, very short by Khumbu standards, but wonderfully adorned with a fresh snow from the previous evening’s storm. I asked Paulo, “what do you think the frame is for this trek, what is the general theme?” We had been in Nepal adventuring about for over two months at that point, and to us it had felt like each thing we had done and place we had visited had been imbued with a special purpose as it related to our own journey. By the time we had walked out from Annapurna Base Camp we understood the meaning of our pilgrimage there, and had left the past up there in the snow, in the past, where it belonged. As we followed the long circuit around the Annapurna Massif we spun the wheel of our lives back into action from the stagnant, stalled state which they had degenerated into. Upon our return to Pokhara we felt like we had a purpose again, there was a path in front of us that we understood and could follow, life had motion. A week of intensive practice at Sadhana Yoga Center had taught us some methods by which to implement our quest for self-betterment, and had more importantly intoxicated us with a fresh breathe of progress. So in a way, as we embarked on another 20 days of wandering around the mountains, something we were getting fairly proficient at, I wondered if perhaps this mission would merely entail sightseeing, if perhaps the mountains had given us all that they could for this go-around, and hoped that as we walked we wouldn’t fall into some form of spiritual holding pattern, a bardo.

The path we walked in the early morning sunshine traversed along a south-facing slope through pine and rhododendron forests. The rhododendrons were in full bloom at this particular altitude, which was incredible because it seems that everywhere we have walked in this mountainous country, for three months, the rhododendrons have been blooming. Instead of the ubiquitous pink and sometimes dark, rose-like red, this day we experienced a pale off-white interspersed with yellow, a color grouping we had not yet seen. Trampling the carpet of fallen blossoms below his feet and strolling beneath the canopy of still hanging blossoms above him, Paulo replied something like, “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been waiting for it to hit me, what this trek is supposed to be all about, what we are supposed to learn. But we didn’t know at the beginning of the other trips either.” Patience: ponder it and walk on, through meadows, under rocky peaks, across clear brooks, past monasteries, and through our minds…

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Spinning the Wheel

“…More than just going with the flow, joe; conscious living means remembering the flow goes always through you, and your healthy needs and wishes, creativity, imagination, aspiration and dreams are also a part of it.” – Lama Surya Das

A long rock wall, stacked by hand and held together only by belief, adorned and sheltered from the weather by a slate stone roof split the trail leading out of town. Prayer flags – yellow, white, red, green, blue – attached together by a long string dangle from wooden pole parapets. Some ends are tied to nearby trees or rocks, other ends of flags blow loosely in the wind, frayed, discolored, old. Inset into the wall at head height for an average Tibetan, or perhaps low chest level for an american male, is a seemingly endless bank of prayer wheels – hollow circular copper drums about 1 foot tall, stuffed with prayer flags, attached with a spindle on the center above and below so they spin, and stenciled on the outside with the ubiquitous prayer: Om Mane Padme Hum. According to Buddhist tradition you pass these prayer wheels on the left, so that with your right hand you spin each wheel as you walk by in the clockwise direction. It is said that spinning the wheel one revolution releases the prayers inscribed upon it and contained within to the wind, liberating them for the good of yourself and all the world. So I walk down the row, spinning each wheel as I walk by, leaving them clattering and praying behind me. Paulo follows, liberating more divine prayers for our benefit. We stroll out of town along the worn path in front of us, continuing our circular walk around the giant powerful mountain, rarely and fittingly even visible to us, like the meaning of life. We set each small wheel spinning as our footsteps around this mountain set our internal wheels spinning as well. Spinning, changing, growing…

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Annapurna!

Whatever this man is–wanderer or evil monk, or saint or sorcerer–he seems touched by what Tibetans call the “crazy wisdom”: he is free. – Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard


Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere – in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that…leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight. – Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds, taken from The Snow Leopard

On day four of our trek up to Annapurna Base Camp, I pondered the point of a pilgrimage. I knew that Paulo, my brother, and I were on a pilgrimage to see this magnificent place referred to by all on the trail as “ABC,” but I did not know what we would find when we got there. It sort of bothered me; after all, why go on a pilgrimage if you do not understand the point of your journey. I looked into the eyes of the weary travelers coming towards us on the trail, the ones who had already made the journey to the high altitudes and snows of ABC, and wondered what they were thinking. In most of their eyes I saw nothing but weariness, exhaustion, and perhaps exasperation: exasperation with the distance they now had to travel back to civilization. It seemed to me that on many of their faces was painted the knowledge of how far they had yet to travel, and the intense desire that they were already there, and did not have to make the effort to walk these long and hot miles back to the nearest road. To me these people seemed unaffected by what they had seen, and I wondered if they were on a pilgrimage like I was, or if they were merely fulfilling the itinerary set out for them when they planned a trip to Nepal: when in Nepal you go trekking, and the most popular trek is to ABC.

But perhaps I am just being judgmental. Perhaps these people were just really tired. But there was a distinct counter-point to these blank and tired faces – there were those souls walking towards us who glowed with radiance, who were powered by an inner energy, despite the days of hard walking and fatigue. These people were affected, they had found what they were seeking and more in the hall of the mountain kings that we walked towards, but what was it they had found?

As I slowly plodded upwards to my own mantra-chanting rhythm, step by step up yet another interminable himalayan stone staircase, I wondered what my pilgrimage was all about. What was the point of this journey? I had flown half way around the world over the course of five days to land in Nepal. I had then traveled eight hours on a mini-bus to reach a village near the start of this walk, and had packed a backpack, written emails, withdrawn money, and scoured maps in preparation for this five day march to a place which is defined as being merely the base camp for expeditions wishing to tackle the real challenge – the famous and menacing mountain Annapurna which rises above. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily do all these things and much more just to enjoy a fine walk in the mountains, but this one was about much more than just seeing the sights. I could feel the hidden significance within myself, but it bothered me that I couldn’t put my finger on that internal meaning, the reason for sharing this march with all these countless fellow souls from every country in the world where people have enough income to travel to Nepal, as well as with my brother. And so I marched onwards, wondering…

what is Paulo looking for?

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