Cycling in Cuba: An Introduction

I’ve been off the grid the past three weeks, biking in Cuba. I plan to write a full set of reports on the trip on the blog, but will serve up the outline for the experience first.

Intro: Cheryl and I are now retired for three years, and have been doing one major trip each spring, having “fun with our fitness”. Last year, a two week trek in the Mustang region of Nepal. This year: cycling across Cuba under the aegis of a Canadian company, Canbicuba, which has had a presence on the island for over a decade.

The trip: 17 days, 12 days of cycling bookended by 2 days on each end in Havana. Starting in Baracoa, ending in Maria La Gorda, going east to west with the prevailing northeasterly trade winds which are prevalent at this latitude. 80-100 km most days, one rest day in the middle, ending with 140 km the last day.

The group: 13 US cyclists, all in their 60s and early 70s. Two types: about 6 racers/former racers … meaning guys like me, although they were pure cyclists, I was the only triathlete. We made up a good group for long, windy, flat stretches. A tandem.  About 5 women Cheryl’s age or older; very strong cyclists, intrepid each and every one. Cubans: bus driver Juan, on the road bike leader and mechanic Yoanis, and trip leader Alejandro. A serious group when it came to the road, but fun loving off it.

Cuba and tourism: Cuba has been hosting tourists since the 1800s, even during its current socialist incarnation. It’s just the US which has been isolated, not the entire world. There is a Cancun-like area of modern hotels at Veradero, and many other beach resorts. Since 2011, private BnB type “Casa Particulaires” have been allowed, a mushrooming segment. In the larger cities, there are industrial strength Soviet era and style hotels for foreigners. Since last November, there have been 1000’s of US airline direct flight seats going in and out of Cuba each week, so we are no longer oddities there, although, Europeans and Latin Americans make up the vast majority of tourists. US citizens still need to fit into one of a dozen approved categories of travel, but as long as you don’t spend all your time lounging at the beach, fitting into the “Education – People to People” category is a snap.

The Economy: Totally artificial. There is a currency for foreigners and to deal with the outside world: CUC, pegged at (oddly) 1 CUC: 1 US $. For Cubans, it’s CUP, pegged at 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The entire internal system of prices and costs is totally planned and managed by the government (duh, socialism), so it is disconnected from any real connection to the value of the work or materials involved. Prices for foreigners in the government controlled segments (hotels, museums, rum, cigars, etc) are in most cases similar to what you’d pay in the US. In the Casas and privately owned restaurants, it can be a bit cheaper.

The roads: Yes, Cuba is the last bastion of those 50’s big-finned US cars. No pollution control so much exhaust and diesel everywhere. BUT: very few vehicles at all – a dream compared to the US, and especially to other developing countries when it comes to traffic. Most Cuban roads are VERY lightly traveled. A sprinkling of private autos, a few transport trucks, some “truck/buses” (think: cattle cars), and many horse-drawn carriages and beat up bicycles share the road. With all the different speeds, Cuban drivers are safe, cautious and polite – everyone stops for railroad crossings, motor vehicles give the human and animal powered ones a wide berth, making the cycling very safe.

The climate: Exactly like Hawaii. Same latitude, same trade winds, same wet/dry side, same winds, same humidity, same temps. If I closed my eyes, I was on Maui or the Big Island

The people: EVERYONE is educated. 100% literacy. And no one worries about health care. It’s free, and there are clinics and hospitals everywhere. Everyone is fed, and there is basically no homelessness. So the people have a minimum level of security, and are free to have a bit of fun with life. There is a lot of music, a lot conversation, and lot of smiling. Never felt threatened, or even stared at. On the down side, of course, are the invariable shortages and lines for the basics of life (outside of food and shelter). EG, this month, no one had pens, and those of us who knew this and brought a bunch were treated with broad smiles and “Gracias”.

Stories: I have dozens, but here’s one: on my last day there (Sunday), I was running along the Malecon, an 8km stretch of road at the seaside in Havana, with a broad sidewalk at the water’s edge. Early Morning just before sunrise. Almost no traffic, some young people still congregated at the seawall after the previous night’s weekly fest of music, dancing and food, along with about a dozen tourist runners like me (and 4 Cubans running as a group in a traffic lane). As I get to my half way point, a young man runs up along me, shouting, “Hey, Ultra-marathon”, and waving a numbered racing bib. I can understand and speak a little Spanish (with apparently a very good Tijuana accent, from my years working at LA County hospital, where 95% of my patients spoke only Spanish), so we were able to communicate somewhat. He claims he is in town from Santiago (a day’s drive away) for a half marathon, which he plans to run in 1:10. He looks in his mid 20s, very lean, about 5’6″, with small calves, big veins and an easy stride, and a small back-pack. Easily keeping up with me so a real runner. He learns I’m a triathlete, so starts asking for things like shoes, shirt, shorts, even a bicycle wheel. While part of this might be a scam, part of it is real: Cubans can’t import anything privately, so real athletic gear is in short supply. EG we brought a bunch of bike parts and kit for a local junior racing team. He also asks for $ for his wife and him to buy some milk. He asks for the equivalent of one US penny! Anyway, when I finish at my casa, I get him to write his name and address so I can send him one of the wheels I have in my garage which I haven’t used in a decade. I gave him my running shoes (he’s been going 5 K with me with the toes blown out of his), and a “Team USA” USAT shirt. And the pen and 25¢. He knows about the Havana triathlon which USAT has gone to the past two years, and I allow as how, after my three weeks on the Island, I may just come back for that race next February.

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Chair Lift Stories III

“Where are we going to go next?” Sitting on the Sheer Bliss lift between my son and wife, I felt warmth from both the high-altitude sun and familial camaraderie. Two days since the last snow, everything was open, soft and cushy. The eastern edge of the Big Burn features open vistas, easy rolling terrain, and widely spaced maturing firs, re-populating the sub-alpine slopes after the fire, now 140 years ago. As we left the denser forest just below the Burn, the sun and snow opened everything up, pulling us higher and higher.

“Why don’t we take the Cirque lift up? Cody and I can ski down the Headwall, and you can take the High Traverse over to Green Cabin, go down, and meet us at the base of High Alpine.”

Cheryl seemed eager. “I love that – my two favorite spots!”

Cody grumbled a bit. His feet, with growing, painful bunions, have a tougher and tougher time squeezing into boots every year. But he loves to ski, and was trying to find the right combination of rest, effort, and buckle tightness to continue his addiction. The moguls in the run-out from the Cirque would not treat his feet kindly.

The Cirque lift is a “Poma”. That’s a word like “Xerox”, or “Kleenex”. Poma the number one manufacturer of platter pull lifts, along with standard chair lifts of all varieties. Platters are a one-person ride. An attendant holds a pole, waiting for the proper distance from the previous rider. At that point, the rider grabs the pole, trips a rod so the overhead cable grabs the pole with a jerk, and puts it between his legs. At the end is a disc, the platter, about the size of a pie tin. There’s an S-curve in the pole at hip level, to allow for a more comfortable fit. The rider leans back, resting his tail bone on the platter, and off he goes, his skis still gliding along the snow up hill.

The concept works great for skiers. Snowboarders, not so much. They’ve only got one plank to ride, and even if they free one leg from the binding, they still have to start the glide one-footed, then somehow swing the other leg around the pole and ride up sort of side-saddle. Boarders riding a Poma for the first time have a lot of physical coordination to figure out in a very short time, and a number of them fail the test, releasing the pole and falling off the side of the track. They have to go back and try again with the next pole coming around the bull wheel.

“That looks like a short line, I know” – maybe 15 or 20 people were queued up in the corral – “ but it’s probably a good 7 to 10 minute wait.”

“I haven’t done it yet this year, so it doesn’t really matter; I want to get up and see the view,” Cheryl responded.

“I never used to wait in line. I would wait up the hill a bit, and wait for a snowboarder to fall. I almost always got a pole within a couple of minutes.” Cody had spent a couple of winters here, skiing mostly by himself, exploring the nuances of the Headwall, East Wall, AMF, and Dikes – the “runs” flowing through the Cirque bowl.

“Isn’t that kind of hard?” Cheryl asked. “The pole’s whizzing along, and you’ve got to grab it as it goes by?”

“Yeah, well, I learned how to time it just right. It’s not that hard.”

We were nearing the top of the lift, the trees getting smaller and smaller, the sun getting brighter. Above the lift terminus, the upper tundra of Bald Mountain glared back at us.

“One time, right about here, I saw a guy fall off.” We neared the final tower, raised the safety bar, and jiggled around a bit to make sure nothing was caught on the chair. Cody finished up just before we off-loaded. “I raced off the lift, screamed over to the poma track, and caught the pole on the fly, while I was still moving across the slope. That was maybe the most fun I’ve had on that lift.”

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Chair Lift Stories II

I slid into the Sheer Bliss corral, turned around, and saw Cheryl right behind me. We edged forward, merging with the small clot of skiers heading towards the lift. A younger couple was moving up on our left. The guy said with a smile, “It’s starting to get crowded, why don’t we go up together?”

They looked pretty fit, and geared for serious skiing. After we were on the chair, with the foot rest down, I took a guess and asked, “Do you live around here?”

“No, we’re from Portland, Oregon.”

With a grin on my breath, I returned, “Oh, our neck of the woods. We’re from up in the Puget Sound – Gig Harbor, when we’re not here.” I quickly gave him the run down on our second generation second homeowner status, fiftieth year skiing here, etc.


“So you’re here on a vacation?”

“Well, sort of; I’ve got a few months off, so we came out to try the skiing in Colorado.” Which lead to a few moments of commiserating on the vagaries of Cascade Concrete, and the great terrain/iffy snow we get in the Pacific NW. “We’ve been to Vail and Steamboat, maybe try Telluride. But we’ve got to get through the mountains here – Ajax, Highlands.”

“So a real road trip, huh? Do you have a vehicle for that?”

“Yeah, we rented a car – “

“No, I thought maybe you had a van, were sleeping in parking lots, cooking your own meals, that kinda thing.”

“Well, that would be cool. But we do have friends we’re staying with, so that makes it easy.”

Cheryl’s curiosity overwhelmed her: “So what do you do that you have a few months off in the winter?”

A bit proudly, he said, “I’m a Captain on an oil tanker in the Gulf.” I assumed he meant Mexico, not Persian, but I didn’t ask.

“Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever met a tanker captain before.”

His partner now couldn’t contain *her*self. “And I run tugboats on the Columbia.”

I was floored. these guys didn’t look over 32-35.

“Those are serious jobs. I mean, do you pilot the big ships in from the ocean upriver to the ports.”

“That’s my goal,” she answered. For now, I’m part of the crew on a tugboat team which takes barges up and down the Columbia, grain from the Snake River, going to Longview. Sometimes we have 4 boats and a whole train of barges.”

“That’s really a tricky job, right? I mean, you have to know the shoals and the currents and everything, right?” I was trying to express some respect for their work. These guys were serious, as well as young, in love, and outdoor adventurers. I turned to the guy, trying to exude a smile through my face mask and goggles. “I guess those jobs are pretty safe for your lifetimes. No robots yet can capture the experience and knowledge it takes to move those ships around?”

He laughed, agreeing. Quiet for a moment, they looked at the map, puzzling their next move.

“You know where you’re going?” I ventured.

“What do you suggest?”

I figured them as willing to take a chance, and with a month or more of skiing already behind them this season, ready for anything this mountain had on offer.

We were about two-thirds of the way up. We could start to see the top of the mountain, which rose another 1200 vertical feet above the chair lift terminus. Past the lift, the terrain was all smooth, treeless, broad open tundra now evenly covered with wind-striated hardpack. To the left, the ground dropped into the bowl of the Cirque.

“Well, over there, you can find just about anything you’d like. No runs, just lines into the trees and gullies. It’s called the Cirque. You get there from the Poma lift which starts just to the left when we get off. Ride it up, you can drop down the Headwall to get in. There’s steeper approaches, like AMF. You’ll see the orange ‘lollipops’ pointing the way. But first time up, I’d head all the way to the Headwall, for the longest run. Come back up this lift, then try AMF if that was too tame.”

“We’ve heard about Hanging Valley, The Wall, that you’ve got to walk up to it.”

“Yeah, well, you can actually ski *down* into it from the top of the Poma. Just take the traverse all the way over, follow the signs and you can skip the hike.”


We were jiggling our skis, shaking our our clothes a bit, preparing to unload. “You guys have fun. And strong work there out on the water.”

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Chair Lift Stories

I’m doing laps in the Cirque. First a warm-up on the Big Burn corduroy in Dallas Freeway and Whispering Jesse, then give it a go down AMF through Rock Island.

With all the snow this January, the ski patrol has done a lot of control work – dropping gunpowder charges into the chute which defines Adios, “My Friend”. This loosens up the snow at the top of the run, cresting a taller and taller cornice at the drop-in point, and flattening out the piste towards the bottom. The snow stopped 5 days ago, followed by sunny days and warming temperatures. But the prevailing westerly wind blows snow over the edge, and pastes it to the surface, filling in the valleys between moguls and providing a smooth semblance of fresh snow experience each morning.

The wind slab is fairly firm, and my skis chatter with my down-weighting pressure at the end of each turn. Then through KT gully, across the hill to Rock Island, where lumps of snow rise above the moguls, hiding the boulders which have fallen over the millennia from the cliffs above. The final narrow bumpy patch before the smoothly groomed Green Cabin run brings me back to the Sheer Bliss lift.

Back up, then onto the CIrque Poma, through a ground blizzard of snow, still blowing to the east, into the bowl below. A trip down my favorite real estate, Cirque Headwall, through the sparsely treed sub- alpine terrain leading into the narrow KT Gully chute. Back to the lift, for one more trip up, over to Hanging Valley.

I slide suavely through the single line, and find a few skiers and boarders have formed the beginning of a line. I let one group of three snowboarders go ahead, and team up with a young, lean, bearded skier sporting ear buds and a Buff neck gaiter. Gliding up to the load-in point, I flip my left pole straight into the air, catching it mid-shaft. My signature move, to prove I’ve still got some hand-eye coordination.

He’s a friendly guy, going beyond the usual, “How’s your day going?” to “Where’ve you been skiing?”

“Been doing laps on the Cirque, AMF, then the Headwall,” I say matter-of-factly. I’m past posing in my ski life. It’s just what I do.

“Cool – How was the snow there?”

“Well, there’s some wind-blown cover over the moguls, makes it pretty smooth. It was OK. I’m done with that now, I think maybe I’ll go over to Hanging Valley”

“You know the High Alpine lift is open now…” It had been closed for those brisk easterlies this morning.

“Yeah, but I don’t like to walk if I don’t have to.” Two ways into Hanging Valley: Walk a bit uphill for 5-10 minutes from the top of the High Alpine lift, or take the cirque lift up ( 10 minutes or more, depending on the line), then glide along the High Pass catwalk around the top of the Cirque Bowl to the Headwall gate (another 5 minutes.)

He’s fiddling first with his neck gaiter, then his ear buds, maybe deciding whether to keep the conversation. He’s been affecting a cool staccato delivery, what 20-somethings affect when they don’t want to seem too adult.

I press on: “You work here?”

He takes me literally, “here” meaning Snowmass I guess. “No, I’m down in Carbondale. I work at ‘Jaywalkers’. It’s sort of a rehab-treatment facility. I’m, I guess, a ‘technician’ there. I work in the evenings, helping the clients with their work. And sometimes, I take them on trips, like to skiing, or hiking in the summer, maybe fishing.”

“Whoa, for a minute when you said ‘technician’ I thought maybe you, like, drew blood, did lab tests, or something. But you’re more like a care attendant, right?”

The wind had died down, and the sun was nearing its zenith for the day. He tugged at his neck gaiter, pulling it below his chin, and scratched his short brown, fairly scraggly beard. “Hmm, I guess so. When I’m there in the evenings, I’m often the only staff around. It’s kinda cool.”

“Do you take any public insurance, like Medicaid.” I was thinking of my daughter, Shaine, who helps lead a union in Washington state with 1,000s of home health care attendants mostly paid by Medicaid. She has to negotiate the contract with the state every now and then.

“No, it’s mostly private.”

“Do your clients come from Colorado, or from all over?”

“They come from everywhere. They like being in an isolated place,”

“Away from the temptations of the city, I guess?”


A vision popped into my head, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. Much of it takes place in a convalescent retreat in the Swiss Alps. “You know, a hundred, 150 years ago, people went to places called ‘sanitariums’, maybe in Switzerland, to get relief from whatever was troubling them. This sounds kind of like that.”

“Maybe…” he seemed a bit skeptical. “The best part of what we do is not rest, but getting people active, outside, and all.”

“Right. I’ve heard of studies that say being outside, just by itself, as good for our mental health.”

“Uh, huh.”

“Jaywalkers, huh? Sounds like you’re doing good work.”

The ride was getting the top. We started to raise the bar, kicked our feet, shifted a bit to make sure nothing was caught, and slid off the chair at the load out.

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Left/Right Pedal Balance

I’ve been using my new PowerTap P1 pedals for a month now on the trainer. I usually see a 53/47 L/R wattage balance when I review a ride afterwards.  That ratio seems to hold pretty much during all types of intervals: warm-up, short VO2 work, longer FTPs, and steady state. The pedals work fine measuring left only and right only when I do single leg drills. So now I’m left with pondering (a) why the imbalance and (b) what – if anything- to do about it.

At first, I made the simplistic assumption: “Well, my left leg is stronger than my right.” But this seemed at odds with a few other facts:

  • When doing single leg knee bends, my right seems both more stable and stronger
  • When skiing, it is easier to make left turns (which utilize the right leg to the greater extent) than right turns.
  • I currently am re-habbing a left hamstring and piriformis situation.

So I dug into, and learned a bit about pedaling balance. The biggest problem people seem to have is that one leg gets in the way of the other. Meaning: if I am not sufficiently “unweighting” my foot during the pedal upstroke (6-to-12 o’clock), then the opposite (contralateral) leg will have to work harder during its 12-to-6 portion. So: if my right leg is floating up while my left is pushing down, the left will have to work harder to maintain cadence, causing the imbalance noted above.

Next step: see if this theory is correct. First off, when doing single leg drills, it does feel as if I “chain-slip” sooner and more often on the right than the left. That is, after about 15-20 seconds of a right-only drill, there starts to be a slack in the pedaling between about 10 and 12, sufficient to cause an audible sound of the chainring losing, then re-gaining its grip on the chain. Next, I discovered that PowerTap has an App which shows, in real time, a graphic representation of watts applied at the various reporting stations around the clock on each pedal. (When I used a CompuTrainer from 2007-2014, I had access to a similar metric, but never paid it any attention – just too hard to use, for me.)

So I fired that up, which entailed the usual futzing around with getting sensors linked to the app, and then figuring out just how the app worked – as usual, no user’s manual, and little online help. After a good 30 minutes of easy spinning at 60-70% of FTP, I turned to the graphs which show real time force being applied at each of the 15 or so points around the full circle of a pedal stroke. The app has three different visual representations: tangential lines coming out of the circle at each point where its receiving data, the length of which represents the wattage at that point; a color coded circle, with blue being lightest, and red being strongest, also a thin blue line when no force is being applied; and a warp in the circle, presumably showing when one is “pedaling squares” instead of more evenly.

My left was indeed generating more power than my right, but it sure didn’t feel like it, unless I actually took my foot off the pedal and could see a “zero” on that side. So I’m wondering if the pedals are not sufficiently accurate to use for improving/smoothing my stroke. At this point, I will simply start by following the old Quality Improvement maxim: “You only improve what you measure”, and take about 5 or 10 minutes at the end of every indoor session to look at the numbers when I’m cooling down. And continue searching for ways to confirm or refute whether I have an imbalance; if that imbalance is important; and what to do about it if it is.

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The Long and Winding Road


Chaim opened with his biggest smile. “I have the tickets for tomorrow. We go to airport [which is basically right next door to the German-themed teahouse/lodge where we’re staying in Jomsom] tomorrow by 6:30. Plane might be there before 7.”

“Are we going to be able to fly out?”  I asked. The winds ripping through the Jomsom gap in the Himalayas had prevented any incoming or outgoing flights that morning.

Chaim smiled more broadly, even sticking out his tongue. “We see, no?”

See we did. Three hours hanging in and around the airport until finally, no flights coming in, so none going out. Chaim told us, “I go get bus to Pokhara. You can wait here in tea shop, eat a little”

By noon, he had us on a rickety Nepalese bus, empty except for ourselves, a Dutch father and his son, and their guide. The porters had taken their own buses back the day before. Chaim, instead of putting us all on the regularly “scheduled” bus, was using the surplus funds from our all-inclusive fee, which he carried in an envelope in his jacket pocket, to garner a more exclusive ride for us. No crowded cabin, filled with mothers and goats, suitcases strapped high on the roof, for our party. Inside, little tassels hung from across the front window. A mattress lay across the cabin just aft of the driver; Chaim rested here, and chatted with the driver as we headed out.

The first few kilometers were pleasant enough, considering the bus had no suspension and the road was littered with goat head-sized rocks. Grinding along at maybe 10-15 mph, we slowly left the high desert wastelands, entering a steepening gorge lined with Asian evergreens. Down in the still wide Kali Gandaki river bed, the gravel flats had been converted to barley plots in a few places. Clouds built up around the 8000 meter peaks of Annapurna and Dauli Giri, over 5000 meters (16,500 feet) above us. This may be the deepest canyon/gorge on the planet, measuring from river bottom to mountain top.


The gawking was short lived, though. As the slopes got steeper, the road grew ruttier. Maybe a fifteen foot wide track, bulldozed across the face of a 60 degree slope. Minimal road maintenance meant the damage from monsoon rains built up year after year, and the ruts grew. Every time another vehicle appeared, we had to find a wide spot to stop and let them go by. Sometimes, yaks were being herded up the hill; they got an even wider berth.

The road not only clung precariously to the hillside, it was also heading down towards the Ganges at a frightening angle. We needed to drop 6,000 feet in fifteen miles. On I-70 heading down from the Eisenhower tunnel into Idaho Springs, or Tahoe to Sacramento on I-80, this type of journey can be an easy freeway cruise. In Nepal, of course, it’s an adventure ride, an epic tale for re-telling. The side door of the bus is left open, and a “door man” often stands there, to let the driver know how close the cliff edge might be. At times, we’d stop to pick up a passenger, as long as Chaim agreed (he was paying the bill, of course). The travelers would invariably earn their keep hanging there by the door.

After a couple of hours, we came to a “truck stop”. It had all the trappings of an American road side oasis: A small diner (housed in a canvas and sheet metal tent), a parking area for the vehicles coming through, and a clutch of people, both Nepali and European, waiting for the next bus. This transfer zone was necessary due to the fractured bureaucracy. Most drivers and vehicles only had commercial permits to carry fares within designated districts. Arriving at the border between districts, and passengers had to disembark, and get on another bus. Hence the crowd, and the makeshift teahouse.

Apparently, Chaim had called ahead and reserved another bus and driver, who presently pulled up as we were finishing our dal bat. Several scraggly Euro-backpackers, eager to get out of the drizzly mist, began to negotiate with first the driver, and then Chaim to get on our ride. Trying logic on him, they pointed out how much cheaper it would be to pool our resources. Chaim countered (to us, not them) how much  less crowded it was without them. He was just following his Golden Rule: he who has the gold, rules.

They pleaded with the Dutch father, thinking he might be able to persuade his guide to relent. But, like us, he had learned early in their trek to trust his guide. If Chaim said we should go it alone, and leave the rabble behind, that’s what we did. He’d made great, safe choices for us thus far, and I saw no reason to go against him on the last day out. Not only had we heard about bus accidents on the narrow roads caused by overloaded, unstable buses, Cheryl and I also know of two young women who have died, in South America and New Zealand, in similar circumstances. So our White Privilege was grounded not only in dollars, but also sense.

We did pick up another passenger a few miles down the road. Chaim told us, “This man, he can’t hear, and he miss his bus. Next one not until tomorrow. So we take him where he goes, OK?” OK.

6 hours into the journey, the sky was darkening, and we arrived at the next frontier, in a bustling village, home to probably as many people as all of Mustang. Again, we dined on tea and cookies while Chaim rounded up the third leg of our trip. This would be in a taxi, one for us and another for the Dutch pair. Cars in Nepal are uniformly small and bouncy, but the drivers are expert. Probably a Darwinian thing; only the fit survive.

We arrived in Pokhara exhausted, but alive, crashing at the same small hotel across from the lake from which we’d left over two weeks earlier. Back then, we’d grumbled about the lack of electricity except between 7 and 10 PM. Now, we found it a luxury, We walked the honky tonk streets that night and the next morning, feeling a little hemmed in by the crowds. The air felt heavy and wet, no wind to pull away the perspiration. A constant hum of traffic and conversation carried through the windows, almost reassuring, but still a little foreign. Pokhara was noisy, crowded, oppressive, and a little threatening. Mustang had been quiet, isolated, windy, dry, high, and, most of all, friendly.






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After our 16.5 mile trek across the high wastelands of the eastern Mustangi plateau, to Tetang, we spent the night in a spacious room with adjoining hot shower, well-prepared for the next day’s 2.5 hour walk back down the Kali Gandaki. Warmer air at the lower elevation invigorated our stroll, and we returned to Kagbeni at mid-day. The town which had seemed so primitive 12 days ago now seemed a bustling metropolis. With a day lopped off the schedule by our 10 hour slog from Tangge to Tetang, and our plane flight from Jomsom to Pokhara still two days in the future, we had some time to kill.

Kagbeni serves as a central roundhouse for travelers in four directions: south, to Jomsom, and thence to the outside world; west to Dolpo, an isolated valley renowned for its nomads; north, to Lo Manthang and the rest of Mustang; and east, to Muktinath. Since Dolpo offered more of the same scenery and culture we had just spent two weeks walking through, we decided to take a day hike to Muktinath, 7 miles up. This is a well trod pilgrim’s path for both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists, as well as westerners following the Annapurna Circuit. We could have taken a jeep, horses, or even a helicopter, but we’d found a rhythm on our feet, and preferred to walk. Our porter, even though he had no load to carry, and could have taken a day off, wanted to come along, to see the sacred waters and flames.

Hinduism and Buddhism may encompass half of the world’s religious devotees, but they are both fairly opaque to me. So what little I’ve gathered about the sacred sites at Muktinath may be muddled, or worse. Meaning, take what I say here with a truckload of salt.

The following appears, almost word for word, in a number of websites I consulted about this place: “Buddhists call Muktinath Chumming Gyatsa, which in Tibetan means ‘Hundred Waters’. According to Tibetan Buddhism Chumig Gyatsa is a sacred place of the Dakinis goddesses known as Sky Dancers, and also one of the 24 celebrated Tantric places. Additionally, the site is believed to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and Virtue. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition states that Guru Rimpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, meditated here on his way to Tibet.” That supposedly explains why Buddhists venerate the area.

The temple here is overseen by a Buddhist monk, with several nuns in residence to take care of the grounds and artifacts. Before entering the temple, we found three of them sitting below a chorten, washing each other’s hair. They seemed oblivious to being in a fish bowl with scores of Indian, Nepali (and two American) pilgrims gawking. Inside were the standard wall paintings, cupboards for sacred texts, and something different – the number one reason that Hindus come here.

The area is revered for the four major elements – fire, water, earth, sky (air) – being in close proximity. The fire, inside an earthen altar protected by chicken wire, looks for all the world like a pilot light on as gas stove. As it should, since the flame comes from natural gas leaking out of a coal seam underground. The nuns are charged with ensuring the flame does not go out. If only other religions could get it together with their sacred sites, say, in Jerusalem.

For Hindus, the following is apparently why they come here annually in the thousands: “Hindus call the site Mukti Kshetra, which literally means the “place of salvation” and it is one of the most ancient temples of the God Vishnu and the Vaishnava tradition in Nepal. The shrine is considered to be one of the eight sacred places known as Svayam Vyakta Ksetras (the other seven being Srirangam, Srimushnam, Tirupati, Naimisharanya, Totadri, Pushkar and Badrinath), as well as one of the 108 Divya Desam, or holy places of worship of Lord Vishnu. Additionally, it is also one of the 51 Shakti Pitha goddess sites.”

That number 108 carries a lot of weight here. Another stop along the route are the 108 spouts of freezing water, coming from sacred natural springs (presumably 108 of them) and carried into a concrete wall with 108 outflow pipes. Watching people coming through here, everyone seemed to have a different method. Some went clockwise, others, counter. Some just touched their fingers to each stream, others filled a plastic soft drink bottle with a few drops from each; some splashed water on their faces, and others, shirtless, took a full shower beneath each. There were also two small pools out front, mingling all 108 streams. Some people dipped their hands in, others walked through, and a few, again shirtless, did a semi-self-baptism.

In the center was a ladies’ only area. Oddly, it was open to view from above, and it seemed to be a place for grandmothers to light incense and gossip. Outside, two smartly dressed young Indian women took selfies and snapshots of each other, posing suggestively in the center of it all, ready for a Facebook post, “I was here!” The mixing of the sacred and profane was everywhere; there seemed to be no demarcation, as we’d find in western traditions, between what is religious practice, and standard fun-seeking. It was as if Catholics were walking right up to and through a cathedral altar, without crossing themselves or covering their heads if they were women.

The physical setting for all this was, of course, breath-taking. Not only were we at 12,500’ altitude, but the Himalayas rose sharply above us, with the fabled route to Thorong La just five miles and over 5,000’ above us. I felt safe and warm “down” in Muktinath, compared to the risk of frostbite, storms, and altitude sickness which threatened the trekkers on the Annapurna circuit. Maybe in another life?


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The Longest Day


“I only find one horse, for Cheryl,” Chaim announced at breakfast. “Al, you are OK walking? Maybe we go 9, 10 hours today?”

That was just fine with me. I was surprised by how vigorous I felt after ten days of trekking up and down the barren river gorges of Upper Mustang. I was no longer aware that our elevation had been around 3800 meters (12,467’, basically same as the high point at my Snowmass ski area, the top of the Cirque lift). Despite a broken toe five weeks earlier, I had no pain, no hitch in my giddy-up from walking about eight to ten miles each day. And I certainly wasn’t bored. I was getting into it, really, sort of like training for an Ironman, and today would be the final test. From the map, it looked like at least 14 miles, reaching the high point of the trip, 4260 meters (about 14,000’, nearly the summit of Mt. Rainier.) I was raring to go.

Cheryl would not be riding the whole way. The horse man would meet us at the base of theirrigation-channel-1 first climb, about a mile up the river gorge. First we followed a narrow line of green gouged into the hillside out of town – the hand-dug irrigation ditch, bringing water’s life-blood into Tangge. Unlined, the water seeped into the adjacent soil, and vibrant little plants followed its course all the way from the high glacier runoff.

Looking down to our left, I saw one of those rickety plank bridges across the river. A replaced-bridge-1shadow arced just beyond it, with two figures shimmying along – the Spanish couple crossing high above on a narrow suspension bridge. A good reason for the horse not to take us right out of town. The other good reason was the equine effort involved in simply carrying Cheryl’s 50 kilos (the horseman took her pack) up the mountain side. Apparently the little pony needed all the energy he could spare for that. The route was as unforgiving as any we’d steep-trail-1done thus far. Not exactly straight up the hill, but close enough. At least the locals had differentiated the human route from all the goat paths with rocks marking the edge of the trail.

It became obvious why the day would be so long. No villages at all in this part of Mustang. The small outpost of “Pa” proved to be a simple stone hut, uninhabited, next to the only water source we’d see all day. Nomads camped in the stony field below, their canvas tents darkened by the sun. Neither they nor their herd was in sight while we stopped for a morning do-it-yourself tea, meaning gatorade and nuts for me.


I walked 2600′ in 3 miles uphill; it took me two hours. Resting at the La, I saw Cheryl on her pony, bobbing along below. Ten steps, rest. Eight Steps, rest again. The horse was having issues with the altitude and cargo, and insisted on taking his own sweet time. Cheryl was laughing at the pony, pleased with his instinctive self-preservation.

Next came 8 miles across an arid, expansive plateau. At times we clung to the edge of a knife ridge, looking down and across to our left at the high peaks of the Nepalese/Tibetan border. The view in that direction seemed to mimic, at its very top, an Alpine panorama, leading down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, ending with a simulacrum of Bryce Canyon. The other side, the one we were walking across, had portions where the trail disappeared into a treacherous scree field. Cheryl and I took our sweet time getting through that stretch, as one slip meant a fall of about 1500′ through a jagged rock field. Chaim brought up the rear, ready to snatch his client from any danger she might tumble into.

The plateau, when it wasn’t scaring us silly with its drop-offs, provided a complete view of the entire Upper Mustang canyon lands. It was fun picking out the vague green patches surrounding the towns we’d been through on the other side of the Kali Gandaki, the week before. The previous night’s snow fall added luster to the high peaks on the Tibetan border ridges. On the other side, a vista of badland fins and deep canyons concentrated my mind on the steps I took.

I kept expecting the trail to start its descent, but that was all wishful thinking. Around every bend was another; after every little rise a brief downhill, then back up again. Finally, the trail seemed to end in another maze of hoodoos and fins. Two gullies presented themselves; one must be the trail, the other simply a gash in the hillside. Both were filled with gravel, pebbles, and small rock, covered in “mud”,  which is what Chaim called the ever-present dust. I was stumped, and found it impossible to decide which was the trail and which might lead to a precipitous drop-off. Could you choose between these two?which-way-1-1which-way-1









To end our day, we dropped down 3000′ in 3.5 miles, much of it taken “slowly, slowly”, making sure of our purchase on each and every step, leaning on both trekking poles, for fear of sliding through the pebbly dust. But we made it to Tangge, arriving at what turned out to be a familiar tea house. Our second day out, we had stopped for lunch at this same two story stone lodge, set beside a stream with full-leafed trees. We had not noticed the building out back, where that night we would find our first indoor hot water shower in nearly two weeks.





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Out With The Old, In With The New

[copy of a post to EN Forum today]

The intent of this thread is to encourage folks to review their past year in training and racing, and report goals for the coming year. Not intended as simply a summary of race performances, but rather analyses of what worked, what didn’t, what might be changed, and what might be committed to for 2017. I guess I’ll have to go first?

2016 season – roughly defined as Dec ’15 >> Nov ’16 – cleanly splits in half for me. Recovery from surgery (hernia), skiing, dealing with the implications of a broken big toe in February, and gone for 3+ weeks trekking in Nepal in April all put a pretty big hole in opportunities for improvement via consistent training. Comparing the first six months to the last via one metric, distance covered, I biked 1150/3700 miles, swam 70/152 km, and ran 175/632 miles. Looking back, I can see that “break” allowed my overworked triathlon head space and broken-down body a chance to do some healing. Having done about 30 IMs 2000-2015, I committed going forward to doing at most one per year (with the possible exception of aging up @ 70). I felt my increasingly narrowed athletic focus (I called it being on the Kona Merry-go-Round) was becoming unhealthy, and I wanted to create opportunities to strike out and do a few different things.

I wasn’t going to suddenly become a power lifter or soccer player; having fun with my fitness would likely remain in the areas I’d already carved out: skiing, hiking, swimming, cycling, running, and triathlon. I’m happy with how that turned out this year: skiing more days than I have since 1980, going for a two week trek half-way around the world, sharing my home in Colorado with a dozen EN tri freaks, and competing at the national level in shorter USAT races. The only thing I didn’t check off was getting back to mountain biking.

I was quite satisfied with how I performed in all my races: they were all fun, I achieved the time goals I set for myself, and I didn’t slow down at the end of any. But either from the more rapid fall off in speed that comes after age 60-65, or from the decreased emphasis on year-round training, I only won a couple of local tris, even coming in second in my local HM.

Since we’re primarily a triathlon team, which has a strong data-geek leaning, I’ll present a couple of charts, both covering my second season, 5/8 >> 11/13. First is my Performance Management Chart, PMC. It shows a steep rise in Acute Training Load starting with the EN Tour of California, and my Aspen training camp, a dip in early August for the USAT NC, then a plateau to a Chronic Training Load of 134 for several weeks in mid-Sept, in the ramp up to IM Maryland. The last six weeks reflect a drop to half iron training loads for the USAT LC (1/2 Iron) NC. IO placed 4th in both those races. Respectable, but not spectacular.


Next, my weekly totals, first in graphic form, then a more detailed chart:

2016-pmc-1 2016-weekly-1

So, what about goals for the coming season. I like the direction this one took, so I’ll try a reprise. Dec-Jan, emphasis on skiing, but also work the OS in, taking 20 weeks to do what most of you get done in 14. Then, a few weeks of bike focus, getting ready for a Big Event, a trans-island bike tour of Cuba with my wife Cheryl. 17 days (11 biking), maybe 5-600 miles, with a Canadian guy who’s been doing these tours for 15+ years. We’ll have a cultural guide, mechanic, SAG driver, and two bike leaders. I think it will be both as ambitious and as rewarding as our trip to Nepal this year.

Then, the EN Blue Ridge Camp end of April. I head to Colorado May 15-June 22 or so, featuring a reprise of the “Al T ‘Tude” camp I hosted this year, June 4-11. Coeur d’Alene 70.3 June 26. Play Super Sherpa for an EN crew @ IM Lake Place in July. August features my A race for the year, the ITU Long Course (4k swim, 120k bike, 30k run) World Championships in Penticton, BC. September will feature a Fall Al T ‘Tude camp (watch for announcement early next year), and I’ll close the season with a Fall IM, still TBD among Louisville, Los Cabos, or Cozumel. I won’t sign up until next Spring, as I’m done playing WTC’s sign up a year in advance game.

My biggest goal for the year is a negative one: Don’t Get Injured. I’ve been doing too much of that the past decade, and Having Fun With Your Fitness requires being fit to begin with. Being injured puts a big crimp in that. Next, process goals of not getting slower or weaker in S/B/R, in order to (outcome goals): win CDA 70.3, and finish top 5 in Penticton.

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Man Cave/Cave Man



Leaving Yara, we face 26 miles of walking with 10,000 feet of elevation gain, with only one tea house lodge along the way. Trekkers supported by a full porter team, who are camping out each night, manage this in three days. We’re faced with doing it in two days. A lot of walking, a lot of climbing, and very little air; we’ll reach our high point of 4280 meters, about the height of Mt. Rainier in our backyard at home.


As usual, we start out walking down to a river gorge, then 1000 meters up a gravelly hillside to a plateau. Arriving at the top, Chaim points to a herd of goats, saying, “I know this guy.” He says that a lot; Chaim seems to know half of Mustang.

The goat herder is grizzled, nearly toothless, squinty eyed, and smiling through a crinkly face, creased around his eyes, across his cheeks and forehead. He has a ratty wool watch cap, a shoulder bag, and a looped short rope around his neck.

Cheryl is curious, and wants to talk with the goat herder, so she gets Chaim to translate.goat-herder-2 Once they agree on a common language and dialect, it goes something like this:

“Where is he from?” We’re an hour or two into our day’s trek at this point. There has been no building, much less people, during that whole time.

“He come from Yara.”

“What does he do up here?”

“He bring the goat up every day. Some place different every day.”

“How old is he?”

“He say he about, um, let me see, 55.”

“Does he do anything else except herd goats?”

“He been doing this all his life.”

“Does he like his work.”

“He say, Oh Yes, it keep him busy, and he doesn’t deal with people.”

“What does he do for the goats?”

“Sometime, the goat get away, he has to bring them back.”

“How does he do that?”

“He has a sling shot. He throw a rock at goat, the goat come back.”

“Can he show me that. Can he use the sling shot?”

Chaim laughs. There are no stray goats to corral. But the herder points at a rock about 100 meters away. He picks up a small kiwi-size stone, slips it into a pouch in the middle of the rope he takes from his neck, whirls it a few times overhead, and flings. The small projectile arcs away, hitting the target square on with a distant thunk.


Cheryl laughs, smiles, and gets her pictures. Reaching the steep portion of the day’s first La, I forge ahead of our porter, only lightly encumbered by my day pack. I catch up to a Spanish couple we have been yo-yoing with for the past two days. They are camping, and we will part ways with them shortly, as they head off onto the Damodar Kunda Trek, an offshoot of the Annapurna Circuit. They will be walking up into glacier country, peaking at about 5800 meters. A bit jealous of their young adventurous souls and bodies, I wait with them at the La, the morning still calm, while Cheryl catches up.

We start downhill, and soon hit a broad open slope of stones, gravel and scree, across which the trail winds and switchbacks. I check my GPS watch for the elevation and gradient. Heading straight down, it’s 40%, with 25-30% being the incline between switchbacks. When it “flattens” out to 10%, I stop again, seeing first Cheryl, then Chaim, then the porters, who are running down the loose gravel slope, 65 pound packs held in place only by a strap around their necks. I had carefully inched my way down this slope, measuring every step, leaning on my hiking poles, not wanting to have my feet slide out from under me.

Down at the river, the channel has been altered to hug the far side of the bed, allowing an irrigation channel to siphon off the flow onto a plateau just below. Nothing is planted there yet, no sign of farming. Chaim points to the single building up on the bank.


“That a new tea house. People here start to farm, so they have food next year. Now, we eat morning tea and rest.”

And go uphill once again, 800 meters in a couple of miles. By the time we reach the top, the wind has started its afternoon blast. We drop down into the inevitable fluted slot canyon, where the funnel effect has taken full force. Cheryl’s Tyvek jacket, whipping at the sleeves, is plastered to her chest, and her face is hidden from the stinging sand by her ever-present Buff.

Out of the slot, we look down on a broad mile-long plain to the final downhill plunge. I’m in the lead, and while I can clearly see a trail etched across the mesa, finding it at first is problematic, as the goats seem to not have cared where they went, and twenty or more squiggly routes present themselves. At the final drop off down into Tangge, our destination for the night, the prayer flags are especially busy, carrying the wind from the village up the ridge.

When Michel Peissel visited Tangge in the ‘60s, he was swarmed by townsfolk, who wanted to know his opinion of their chorten(s). They were sure they had the best, largest, and most impressive chorten anywhere in Mustang. Knowing that he had visited all the hamlets oin the upper Kali Gandaki basin, they would not let him into town until he admitted that, yes, their was certainly the most impressive. It features a multitude of domes (Peissel claims there were 30 during his visit; I could only count half that many.)

Tangge’s red and white chorten complex anchors the village, which sits just above its fields, hugging the cliff base. Wind has scoured out a natural Mt. Rushmore, with an ominous brooding face staring down across a crumbling ancient dzong, channeling an Easter Island statue.


Our tea house was newly built, on the far end of town. Exploring the ruined dzong, I climb above our lodgings for an evening view. Clouds, dark not fluffy, roam overhead, and it sure does look like snow. Inside, the wood fire warms our transnational crew, Swiss, French, Spanish, and us, along with the Mustangis and Nepali guides and porters. Solar heated hot water awaits for those bold enough to brave the outside shower.

That night, the wind howls up the river canyon, unusual after dark. When we gather for the morning load-out, the snow line has indeed dropped down a lot, and the air has freshened up, the omni-present dust for once not obscuring views.


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