Frary Peak and a Great Salt Lake Dip: Antelope Island State Park, Utah

A few weeks ago, my family, Mike and I spent a week out in Park City, Utah. I hadn’t been anywhere in Utah since my field camp adventures of 2013, so I was pretty excited to get back and explore. However, our decision to visit during the season in between seasons meant we were a week too early for just about everything in Park City–Gaurdsman Pass still hadn’t been plowed, hikes I was familiar with were still under a foot of snow, and shops and restaurants were closed. So instead (and thankfully for its proximity), we just moved our daily adventures a little further east and about 3,000 feet lower in altitude to Salt Lake City. PC or SLC, my family still wanted a serious hiking adventure. So, despite being the site of one my worst hiking experiences ever (…field camp), I had to take Mike and my family to Antelope Island State Park.

scan0003Antelope Island is about an hour outside of Salt Lake City (~1.5hrs outside Park City), and has some of the most seriously gorgeous views I have ever had the pleasure of setting my eyeballs on. The park can get busy in the summer months, so I recommend getting there earlier in the morning before the crowds start pouring in. We got to the park a little later than I usually like for a hike/climb (or even visiting a popular park), but the park wasn’t crowded (it was May-season), the weather was beautiful (60s-70s) and the forecast was clear (i.e. we got lucky ducky). We didn’t have a plan for a hike when we got there, so my mom and sister looked at the trail map and settled on Frary Peak (they, as with me, like climbing high things). By 10 am, we were on the trail and trekking upwards (and already taking 100 photos).

You gain about 2,000 ft of elevation over 3.2 miles on the trek to the Frary Peak summit. The elevation on Antelope Island is not as high as Park City or some of the surrounding mountains, but you will likely still feel the climb. There are lots of opportunities for photo-ops along the way, but the summit views are the best (so don’t linger too long down low). While most of the trail is easy to moderate and highly visible, things start to get a little scary at mile 3–I will discuss below. Visiting in May gifted us with some really wonderfully mild temperatures and not so many bugs, but if you decide to visit anytime in the summer you will more than likely experience the opposite. No matter when you decide to hike Frary Peak, be sure to have plenty of water, sunscreen, bug spray and most importantly, FOOD!

As I mentioned above, the first three miles of the trail are pretty easy going. You will be climbing up pretty much the whole way, but there’s nothing technical to the first three miles. About a mile in, you will see a trail to your right that heads toward Dooley Knob. If you want to hit both Frary Peak and Dooley Knob, I recommend saving this short detour for the way down. Frary Peak will give you the best views, so you may decide (like us) that hitting Dooley Knob isn’t really necessary on your way down. Plus, you’ll probably be happy you saved your climbing legs for what comes after mile three. Throughout your climb, keep your eye out for wildlife, particularly bison, and please, PLEASE do not take selfies with them (just don’t be that person).


Let’s pause for some geology.

Around mile 1.5-2 of the hike (I didn’t have Mike’s gps on me, so I’m not exactly sure of the mileage), you will pass under a little cave (you won’t miss the cave). The rock here is, according to my field camp notes, a part of the Mineral Fork Formation, and is a diamictite, which contain grains of all sizes suspended in a matrix of finer grained sediment. These type of rocks have been attributed to glaciers. And while you may not be surprised to be reading about evidence for glaciers on a mountain, these rocks are much, much older than the mountain they currently sit on. This diamictite is 750 million years old, and 750 million years ago these rocks were sitting on a very large supercontinent (very different from our own) near the equator. Glaciers near the equator you say? How is that possible? Well, these rocks have been used as evidence for the theory of Snowball Earth, a term coined to describe a time period in Earth’s past when the entire globe was covered in ice. Scientists still argue whether or not this time period was actually more snowball-like (completely covered in ice) or more slushball-like (mostly covered in ice), but the evidence is pretty strong that much of the planet, even at low latitudes, had ice of some form covering it.


At mile 3 you reach a false summit that plays host to a radio tower. From here, there a two distinct trails to the summit: one that goes to the left and leads over the ridge and another that goes to the right and starts with a small decline. Before I go any further I must get this out: IF YOU ARE AFRAID OF HEIGHTS AND/OR ARE NOT AN EXPERIENCED HIKER, DO NOT GO ANY FURTHER. I have small bouts of fear of heights (usually when I’m forced to hike close to cliff edge with no protection), and I was feeling it. My father, who has a serious fear of heights, had to turn around almost immediately after we decided how to approach the summit.

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Summit trail options as viewed from the summit (looking NNE)

We did not take the ridge route (trail to the left of the radio tower) up or down the mountain, so I cannot speak for the ease or difficulty of that scramble–many people online have commented that it is exactly that, a scramble, so just be prepared if you select that route to or from the summit. If you decide to tackle the route to the right of the radio tower, I can tell you all about the oops, we should have stayed right at the fork, irrational me thinking “I’m going to die up here” mistake.

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This picture does not do the scramble justice, but it’s the only one I have. Also, Mike is too cool to scramble

Not too long after embarking on the downhill trail to the right of the radio tower, you will reach a fork in the trail. Stay right and you will find a moderate trail that circles around the bottom of the summit before coming up around the other side. Stay left (as we did going up), and you will be scrambling on all fours up a route so steep that wooden stairs have been nailed in to keep you from sliding away. We came down the happier trail, and despite still feeling a little weird on the side of cliff, it was MUCH, MUCH better than the left side of the fork.

If you make it through the scary after mile 3, congrats! The views at the summit are some of the most wonderful views my eyeballs have ever had the pleasure of looking upon on a hike. As Frary Peak is the tallest peak on Antelope Island, you have an amazing 360 degree view of the mountains and lake surrounding you. Definitely be sure to have some snacks to enjoy at the summit because you’re going to want to hang out here for awhile. After basking in all your summit glory, your faced with a decision for getting down–choose wisely and go slowly. But once you get through the “scary”, the rest of the way down is a breeze. Roundtrip, the trail took us about 4 1/2 hours of steady hiking with lots of brief breaks for photos and breath-catching.

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Once you get down, and especially if you’ve never done it before, you should head straight for some water access and float your tired body in the Great Salt Lake. Now, if it’s summertime, your experience will probably be something like my first time: scorching sand and pebbles, people everywhere, piles of dead bugs, choking on live bugs, stinky degrading algae, lots of brine shrimp, but still oh so glorious. Mike’s experience this last May was much more enjoyable: walkable sand and pebbles, no people (seriously, where was everyone?), no piles of dead bugs, not so stinking degrading algae, very little live bugs and extremely glorious. Swimming in a saline lake is really a cool experience. Floating is totally effortless, so leave those arm-floaties at home. But do be prepared to be covered in salt for the rest of the day if you aren’t able to rinse off, and please don’t scream when those little brine shrimp scuttle on by.

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My sister and I cheering on Mike, who is swimming in the Great Salt Lake for the first time.


Now for some more geology. (Last time, I promise).

The Great Salt Lake is a remanent of a much larger pluvial lake called Lake Bonneville, whose water levels have been fluctuating since its creation. From Antelope Island, you are able to see many of the ancient shorelines preserved as distinct terraces along the edge of the lake. At its height around 15,500 years ago, Lake Bonneville reached about 5,100 feet above sea level forming the Bonneville Shoreline. Around 14,500 years ago, water breached the Bonneville Shoreline destroying a dam retaining water in Lake Bonneville. This triggered a rapid drop in water levels in Lake Bonneville, which lead to the formation of the Provo Shoreline. A climate shift, starting about 14,000 years ago, caused water levels to drop in Lake Bonneville again until 10,900 to 10,300 years ago when water levels rose one last time in Lake Bonneville to form the Gilbert Shoreline. Water levels of modern day Great Salt Lake fluctuate drastically due to the shallowness of the lake, and are greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean ocean/climate oscillations, such as El Niño (it really matters you guys!). The visitor center has some really cool graphics on Lake Bonneville, so I definitely encourage all you rock-curious tourists to check it out.

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I highly recommend Antelope Island State Park for anyone visiting the Salt Lake City or Park City area. There’s tons of hikes for a variety of skill levels, and you don’t need to summit Frary Peak to get a piece of the amazing views. And if hiking’s not your thing, you can also just plop your bottom on the sand and enjoy some Salt Lake beaching–just don’t be jealous when your friends come back from Frary Peak with some incredibly Instagram-worthy photographs.

Oh, and remember, summit selfies are the best selfies.

#happyhiking

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Studying abroad: three reasons the un-typical trip is best

My time abroad with The School for Field Studies (SFS) in Kenya and Tanzania will forever be one of the most memorable times of my life. Not a single week goes by where I don’t reminisce about that semester, and I have yet to find a single person not at least a little bit jealous about my experiences abroad. Everything about my study abroad program was different and unique: the locations, the cultures, the people, the coursework, the animals and even the analyzing of dung maidens (seriously, we did this). I couldn’t have been happier with my decision, and the obvious next step is to share all my insightful wisdom with the world.

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Now, I’m not here to bash anyone’s own abroad experiences, I have lots of friends who studied abroad in and/or backpacked through Europe, but I am here to convince people that maybe (just maybe) going about your study abroad experience or even post-graduate travel a little differently can be more fulfilling than chasing after the typical destinations and programs. And so, because obviously I’m super enlightened on the subject, here are my top three reasons (not really ranked in any sort of particular order) the un-typical trip is best.


Traveling somewhere totally crazy.

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Bargaining hard from some tire shoes in Kiswahili at a local market

And by crazy, I mean far (far) away, unique and totally unfamiliar. Step out of your comfort zone. Travel somewhere your friends and family would never expect you to go. Spend a semester (or hell why not a year), in a place that might make you a little uncomfortable at times. Embrace the language barrier(s) and the struggles of learning a new language. Try new foods, attempt new arts and master your bargaining skills. In summary, find somewhere to travel that can teach you more about the world than a daily jaunt to the bars ever could.

I initially singled out my study abroad program for this exact reason. I felt (and still feel) that I have my entire life to explore Europe; I don’t need to be young and rambunctious to enjoy the pubs (and beer) and the beautiful ancient sites. I wanted to travel somewhere I’d likely never have the chance to visit again (or more accurately to one that I would be less likely to visit later in life). East Africa was a place I didn’t know much about, but I wanted to know more. I was drawn to images of its beautiful scenery, unique animals and extraordinary cultures (and people!). While I love beer and bars as much as any typical college student (and still am totally jealous of everyone who got to experience Oktoberfest and real Guinness), I wanted to be challenged in a way I had never been challenged before. And East Africa was the perfect place for me to go.


Stepping away from the western lens.

As I feel very strongly about this point, I have to step away from my usual joking manner and get a little more serious. All of us in the “western world” are guilty of taking things for granted. We’re so far removed from so many of the world’s problems (extreme poverty, water security, food security, war) that we tend to push them out of our minds. We tend to scold other countries or cultures for “doing it wrong” or for “being the enemy” without knowing or even understanding the bigger story. Immersing yourself in a country or culture different from your own is one of the most effective ways to remove your western bias, and to view worldly issues from the lens of someone faced with those issues every single day. And because she says all this so much better and more poetically than me, please watch Chimamanda Adiche’s “The danger of a single story.”

"We are all children of the earth." --Dr. Moses Okello

I left for East Africa with a lot of pre-conceived notions, particularly the “they’re doing it all wrong” attitude. Almost immediately though, all those notions were turned upside-down. Interacting with local communities and people on a day-to-day basis and working with local professors and staff opened my eyes to things I never ever would have considered before. This is something I never could have truly appreciated from a seat in a 300-person lecture at UW-Madison or even from another country and college similar to my own. I could write an entire book about all the things my time in East Africa taught me, especially about all the wonderful lessons the people of East Africa knowingly or unknowingly bestowed upon me, but instead I’ll leave you with a video of our Kenya Center Director, Dr. Okello, throwing down some serious wisdom and sharing a beautiful story about an encounter he had with a little girl during his time in Idaho as a graduate student.


Getting a little dirty.

I’m not talking about the going shower-less for days (or weeks) on end or rolling around in the dirt or even getting some bad-ass dreads kind of dirty (although talk to anyone in my study abroad group and they would probably assert that these things happened A LOT); I’m talking about the getting out in the field and doing hands on research kind of dirty. Choose a program that throws you in the thick of things every day. Seriously, GO PLAY OUTSIDE!

While my initial interest in my study abroad program was because of the location itself, the aspect that solidified my interest was the field study focus of the program. I’m a geologist. Geologists like science and LOVE being in the field. I couldn’t imagine spending a semester abroad in a glorious, new place sitting in a classroom everyday, that’s what not-study abroad college is for, so I knew I needed something a little different. SFS is one of a handful of study abroad programs that centers all of their programs around being in the field and doing hands-on student-involved research. With SFS, I knew I would never, ever bored. I definitely could have selected another SFS program better suited to my major, but honestly, I just wanted to try something new.

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(left) a rare photo with a Maasai. and a dung maiden.
(right) vegetation surveying near Lake Manyara National Park

For those of you who are interested in reading more about my time abroad, feel free to check out all my archived posts from my study abroad blog (http://abadgerabroad.blogspot.com/). There’s a ton more photos and lots of commentaries on all the hilarious things I got myself into and wonderful things I learned while in East Africa–so go be entertained (or not… whatever you feel).

A wannabe world wanderer’s guide to trekking abroad

As a wannabe world wanderer, I’ve certainly been one lucky global traveling ducky the past few years. I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in the spring of 2012, summited Kilimanjaro on Christmas Day 2012, and trekked to Annapurna Base Camp this past April. I’ve learned a lot since my first abroad trek (mainly from my master-planning, world traveling older sister, Lindsey), and looking back it definitely would have been much easier to have someone who had done this all before to guide me through the process. Lucky for you guys, I’m writing this post to do just that. Below, I’ve outlined my steps for planning a guided trek abroad (sorry go-it-aloners, I’m not the experienced trekker you’re looking for), and I’ve reviewed my three incredible treks in beautiful far away places and the people (and companies) who made them all possible. Hopefully, my long-winded words will inspire some of you to travel to some cool new places and bring me lots of good karma for my future world wandering ways!

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Left: the Inca Trail Trek; Center: Mt. Kilimanjaro Trek; Right: Annapurna Base Camp Trek


Steps for planing a guided trek abroad

(1) Save your pennies. When planning a guided trek abroad, things can add up quickly. Unfortunately, this aspect can make or break your dream of trekking abroad, and so I put this as the very first step. You likely won’t know exactly how much your trek will cost until you’ve done some more research and completed steps 2-5, but putting money away in an adventure fund is always a great way to save without having to know exactly what adventure those funds will be used for in the future.

(2) Pick your trek. While a no-brainer, this step also requires a bit of thought. Once you have decided where you want to trek, you also often must decide which route to take to your destination and you must decide how long you wish or need your trek to be. When hiking at high altitude, you must pick your route and time-frame carefully–you will need to give yourself as much time as you can for acclimation (either on or off the trail) and this often means choosing a specific route and pace. During this stage, you will also need to research the best times of the year to go on your selected trek. Some treks are best done in spring and fall, while others are best done during the dry season; these seasons will not be the same in every region, so pick your dates carefully! Lastly, don’t forget to consider your physical abilities. While altitude can affect anyone, even the most experienced climber, differently on different hikes, it’s probably not the best idea to jump on a rugged mountain that tops out at 19,000 ft if you don’t already lead a fairly active lifestyle.

(3) Select your trekking company. This is by far the most important and intensive step of the list. NOT ALL GUIDE GROUPS ARE CREATED EQUAL. It is your job to find the one that not only best suits your needs, but also to find one that is qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy. Below are things that you should consider during your selection phase:

  • Use a combination of recommendations, reviews and websites to find a reputable trekking company. Listen to or read word-of-mouth recommendations, correspond with trekkers who have used the company, watch review videos, read online reviews, browse a company’s website or even look on the Better Business Bureau. The more sources you rely on, the more sure you can be about picking the right guide group. Remember, it is your job to make sure your selected trekking company is qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy–If you lazy it on this step, your trip could be a total disaster.
  • Find a trekking company that is owned and/or operated (i.e. guided) by local people. In places like Peru, Tanzania and Nepal, tourism is a huge part of the local economy. If you’re going to be paying big bucks to trek in foreign countries, the money should (in my opinion) be benefitting the people of that country. In many cases, the use of non-local booking companies may be unavoidable or may actually be the best option; however, try your best to ensure your trek is guided and portered by local people.
  • Find a trekking company that treats their guides and porters well. The amount of time they are required to be on the trail, their pay, their accommodations, and how much weight they are expected to carry and whether or not that weight follows the law are all things you should inquire about when selecting a guide group for you trek. The best way to look into this is to actually talk to someone who has hiked with the group before, but if you are unable to do that online reviews and even posts on a company’s website can be really telling. You will not have a good trek if your guides and porters are unhappy, but more importantly, the guides and porters on your trek deserve to be treated with respect.
  • Inquire about trek specifics, your own accommodations, gear, and add-ons. Most of this can be found on a company’s website, but it is also useful to talk to an employee via email or phone. Questions to ponder: Does the group use tents or cabins? How many people per tent/cabin/teahouse? Will you have to share sleeping quarters with strangers? How many people per trek? How many guides and porters per trek? Can you plan a private group trek? Does the group provide private bathrooms? Is there a separate dining tent? Is or can oxygen be provided (for high altitude)? Can you rent gear from the guide company? Does the trekking company offer add-ons, such as safaris or city tours? This list is not exhaustive, so likely this will be an iterative process. If you don’t get an answer you like from the trekking company you’ve selected, it may be a sign to check out another company. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

(4) Book your trek. Booking an abroad trek should be done more than a couple days in advance, especially with three more very important steps left to do before leaving for your trek (see below). At a minimum, booking your trek will require a down payment–be sure you have saved your pennies well before jumping on this step! Some guide companies will plan and book everything trek-related for you (and so, you only have to worry about paying them on this step), but often the flight(s) and sometimes extra lodging before or after the trek will be up to you. Again–so many pennies (make sure you have them)! Booking your trek in advance will allow you to find the best priced flights and lodging (if necessary) and to gather all the necessary gear (see below).

(5) Collect your IDs and paperwork. Make sure you have a valid passport! Many foreign countries require your passport to be valid for six months AFTER your trip, so be sure to look into these rules either through your trekking company or through the county’s tourism website. You will likely have other paperwork to fill out for permits and/or visas–the trekking company may require this as a part of the booking process, but it also may be something they have you do after you’ve put in your down payment.

(6) Gather your gear. Start hunting down items you need for your trek as soon as you book the trip. Trust me. You do not want to be running to REI hours before your flight leaves. Trekking can be an expensive hobby, and the more time you give yourself between booking and leaving, the better chance you will have at finding gear on sale! Every trek is different, but generally high altitude and mountain treks tend to have very unpredictable weather and thus require a variety of gear. This step is even more important for those who are new to trekking as you will need to drop even more pennies on gear you never thought you would need (i.e. Gore-Tex rain jackets, crampons, trekking poles, gaiters, etc.). Most trekking companies have extensive gear lists that you can follow, but I think it’s always useful to talk to someone who has either (a) done the same trek or (b) who has hiked in the same region. If there are expensive ticket items on your trek gear list that you are unlikely to use again, such as heavy down jackets or below zero rated sleeping bags, see if you can rent them from your trekking company.

(7) Take care of medical. Go to a travel doctor as soon as you can after booking your trip. Visiting your physician is fine; however, travel doctors will not only have better knowledge about the vaccines and medications needed in far away and/or high-elevation places, but also will have the said vaccines and medications in stock (your physician likely will not). Also be aware that some vaccines require multiple doses and will need to be administered far in advanced–do not put off this task! Some countries, such as Tanzania, require proof of specific vaccines for you to enter the country, so don’t think you can get away with avoiding this step. If you will be hiking at altitude, consider altitude sickness medication. Lastly, be sure your current medical insurance will cover you while abroad OR purchase travel insurance (which often includes med-evac airlifts out of high-elevation, rugged terrain). If you hurt yourself while abroad and only have U.S. based coverage, you likely will be paying for all medical services in CASH (kind of a problem if you don’t have the big dollar bills to pay for a med-evac ride to a hospital). Travel insurance is often designed to avoid this exact situation, and some trekking companies require it before you are allowed to hike with them.

(8) Sit back and anticipate! As your trek approaches, double, triple and even quadruple check your pre-trip tasks and packing list. But more importantly, be sure to make everyone around you extremely envious of your upcoming travels.



My abroad trek reviews – a little shove toward step (2) & a little help for step (3)

If you have no idea where to begin or if you’re new to the whole process, picking a trek (2) can be a little daunting, and word-of-mouth recommendations (3) can be hard to acquire. As I have been fortunate enough to go on three amazing abroad treks in the past few years, I wanted to share a good summary of each of my treks (2) as well as the trekking companies that made it all possible (3).

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru: Warmiwañusqa (highest pass) 13,829 feet (4,215 meters)

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About: The Inca Trail (four-day trek) is situated in the Andes Mountains. It winds through a variety of environments including rain forest, cloud forest and alpine tundra. On the trail you pass modern settlements as well as a handful of Incan ruins on your way to the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu. This hike was really stunning, and between the alpacas, huge valley walls and snow covered mountain-tops there was always something to look at. The Andes Mountains were the perfect place to complete my first trek, and I highly recommend this trek for anyone who finds higher altitude or colder treks extremely daunting (plus you get to end in a pretty amazing ancient city). You definitely will not be isolated on this trek, so be prepared to deal with some trail sharing (patience is key).

Due to erosion of the trail, including degradation of the thousands of original Inca Stairs, the Peruvian government limits the number of trekkers allowed on the trail (only 500 people can enter the trail per day–this includes guides and porters) and they are very strict about the guide companies allowed on the trail. If you want to do this hike, you will have no choice but to book far in advance.

Best times to hike: May to September (My sister and I hiked in March–the only day we didn’t get rained on was Machu Picchu day)

Add-ons: Extra days in Lima and Cusco, tour of sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Trekking company: Booked through Peru for Less, guided by Wayki Treks

Peru for Less planned everything perfectly for us, including our add-ons in Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley. They didn’t miss a single beat, and I would highly recommend planning a visit to Peru through them. We had extremely knowledgeable guides take us through Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and our lodging was pretty incredible.

Wayki Treks was wonderful as well; the guide, the chef and porters were all local and despite the language barrier we had a lot of fun conversing with them. Every day our chef and porters would run ahead of us to set up lunch somewhere and then do it again after lunch to set up camp (they were so coordinated on the stairs I could not believe it). We had a very small group (four people total), which was pretty great and unusual. Lindsey and I carried our gear, so we did not hire a personal porter; however, that appeared to be the option most people favored on the trail. There were minor items that we weren’t made well aware of before the trek, such as you can’t have large backpacks in Machu Picchu and that we would be doing a super speedy mad-dash to Sunrise Gate on Machu Picchu day, but overall the trekking company did a really amazing job.

Biggest lesson of the trip: four days of hiking in the Andes is tiring–do yourself a favor and stay an extra night near Machu Picchu. You will appreciate the ruins so much more if you didn’t just spend the first 4-6 hours of your day running with gear on your back to Sunrise Gate.


Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: 19,341 feet (5,895 meters)

DSC02394About: Kilimanjaro is absolutely beautiful, and it is my favorite place that I have ever hiked. However, this trek is hands-down the hardest thing I have ever done. Kilimanjaro isn’t technically difficult, but the altitude is brutal (and can be extremely dangerous if you are not careful). Depending on the route, summit day on Kilimanjaro requires a climb of at least 3,800 feet (4,545 ft if you summit from Barafu Camp on the south side of the mountain like my group did), so this climb is not for the faint of heart (all of the Base Camps on the mountain sit at higher elevations that the 14ers in Colorado). Despite the altitude challenges, if you only are able to do one trek abroad ever and you are an adventurous spirit, this would be the trek I would tell you to do.

The route my group chose was the Shira 8-day Route (10-day trip). The Shira route on Kilimanjaro is perhaps the most beautiful, scenic, least-populated route on the entire mountain. It allows trekkers to see corners of the mountain that other people rarely see, such as Arrow Glacier during one of the afternoon acclimation climbs. The route starts on the west side of the mountain and takes you through forests, moor-lands (which often looked like a faux-under water world), alpine tundra, rugged boulder lands (base-camp) and the snow/glacier filled crater edge and summit. Because the Shira route is much less populated than many of the other routes, you don’t see much of any other groups until the last two days of climbing, and in my opinion, this is one of the best aspects of this route. We summited on Christmas day (hence the Santa hats in the photo) and despite torrential downpour most of the prior 5-days, mother nature decided to gift us with perfect summiting weather.

Best times to hike: January, February, September. (June, July, August are okay, but much colder).

Add-ons: Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crate and Serengeti Safaris; visiting Zanazibar

Trekking company: Booked through Peak Planet, Guided by African Walking Company

Like Peru for Less, Peak Planet made our trip planning and booking super, super easy. Lindsey and my mom added on safaris before our climb as I was finishing up my semester abroad in East Africa, and they had nothing but good things to say about the job Peak Planet did planning their initial part of the trip. Peak Planet even worked with my last minute trekking buddy add-ons, who I met through my study abroad program, and made sure they were in the same trekking group and stayed in the same hotels before and after the trek.

Now for the guides. I can honestly say that the African Walking Company is the most amazing group of humans I have ever had the pleasure to hike with anywhere in the world. Our lead guide, Henry, on Kilimanjaro had been porting and guiding on the mountain for over 15 years–he carried a first aid kit with him at all times and personally saw to every single scratch and ailment that occurred in our group (see photo above for proof that Henry literally always had his first aid kit on him). Our other six guides were also trained in first aid, and despite having their hands full caring for the 14 of us on the trail–even rushed to the aid of other hikers who had been ABANDONED by their own guides.  Every single hour during our summit night/morning, at least of our guides would check us for signs of altitude sickness, shove some chocolate in our mouths (the best kind of energy), and then tell a glorious white lie about just how close we were to the summit (because we had to stay motivated somehow). Our guides even sang to us as we made our final ascent of the mountain, and two guides-in-training (porters) ran up the mountain ahead of us to meet us at the crater’s edge with HOT TEA (seriously guys, these people were unbelievable). Our 47 (yes, 47) porters were so kind and wonderful–we wouldn’t have made it up the mountain without them. If you’re going to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, do it with the African Walking Company!

Biggest lesson of the trip: slow and steady wins (summits) the race (Mt. Kilimanjaro). Our group managed to make quite a few other groups grumbly over the fact that we were moving slow on the mountain. However, many if not most of the people in those groups actually never made it to the top (they didn’t have guides who properly paced them through not only the night/morning of the summit, but also all the days prior) and they were shocked to learn that our entire group had made it to summit. When your guide company is responsible for getting 14 people to the summit of a mountain with a 60% success rate, you know they’re doing something right.


Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal: 13,550 ft (4,130 meters)
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About: Annapurna Base Camp is situated near the base of a series of highly technical Himalayan mountains: Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Tharpu Chuli and Machhapuchhre. The route winds through lush rainforest, rocky terrain, high-alpine tundra and snow/ice ridden valleys and mountain sides, and allows trekkers to stay in enclosed tea-houses (like very rustic cabins) that are owned and operated by local people. This route is one of the more avalanche prone areas of the region (steep walls and heavy snow/rain falls are common-place), so it is very important that you are with a group that knows how to avoid these dangers. On our trek we had to traverse a handful of recent avalanches, and at the summit we could hear avalanches occurring off in the distance.

The views on this trek were unbelievable, but be forewarned, this trek will take you on a seemingly never ending journey of stairs. Unlike Kilimanjaro which stands alone in the Tanzanian landscape, Annapurna sits amongst many other mountains–this requires trekkers to do a lot of ups-to-ridges and downs-to-streams during this trek. However, if you’re a determined trekker like me, this is only a “minor” issue (we’ll just forget my grumblings on the day of 10,000 stairs to lunch). This trek was as tasking on the leg muscles as Kilimanjaro was tasking on the lungs, but the final destination is one of the coolest, geology-rich places I’ve ever been.

I haven’t heard any recent news about the state of the Annapurna Base Camp trail following the recent earthquake in Nepal (we left a mere three days before it occurred), and so if you are interested in this trek soon you will need to do a little follow-up research. I have read that much of Kathmandu is back to business as normal despite some of its great temples and sites missing from the city, but remote areas are likely still rebuilding. The people of Nepal are resilient, and despite this horrible natural disaster, I wouldn’t hesitate to travel back to their beautiful country.

Best times to hike: March to May, September to November

Add-ons: Sacred sites tour in Kathmandu; extra day in Pokhara

Trekking company: Himalayan Glacier

Himalayan Glacier did an absolutely wonderful job planning our trip. They were extremely responsive during our planning/booking stages, and answered all our questions very quickly. Unlike my other two abroad treks, our Annapurna Base Camp trek was a private group trek; however, the cost was no different than if we had joined another group or groups for the trek. Bonus: they are a company completely owned and operated in Nepal!

Our guides on the trek, Rishi and Kesob, and our two porters were extremely hardworking and personable. Between the four of them, we always had our meals on time (they knew the tea-house owners well so we never struggled to get our orders in or to get our food), always had a place to stay (a lot of the go-it-aloners we met had a very hard time finding lodging at the higher camps), and never went more than a few minutes without a good laugh (usually at the cost of Mike doing something silly). Rishi was there for us through our entire trip: including picking us up at the Kathmandu airport, flying with us to Pokhara and back, joining us during our welcome and goodbye dinners, and also getting us in a car to back to the Kathmandu airport. When I go back to Nepal (and I’ll be back for Everest basecamp), I will DEFINITELY be using Himalayan Glacier again.

Biggest lesson of the trip: stair-masters are for wussies.


Happy [global] trekking!

My top ten backpacking items (and some honorable mentions)

When I was writing last weeks post, it was impossible to ignore just how much experience I’ve compacted into a short time. In terms of outdoor activities, I had a lot of catching up to do as a young bright-eye geology major–I didn’t own a single hiking, backpacking or camping item and certainly had no idea where to begin. However, over the past few years, I’ve compiled quite the collection. And for this week’s post, I wanted to share some of my favorites including some of the stories behind what makes them so important to me.

My top ten backpacking items (and some honorable mentions):

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(1) Patagonia Super Cell Gore-Tex Jacket
Why is a rain jacket at the top of my backpacking list? Let me tell you… It doesn’t take long being cold, wet and miserable (and pissed off) in daily torrential downpour on a certain giant mountain in East Africa to learn that not all rain jackets are created equal. I (and quite a few others on the trip) learned the hard way that non-Gore-Tex rain jackets are really, in fact, NOT WATERPROOF. You think I would have learned my lesson hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu (because it rained on us every day then), but nope. I didn’t want to spend the money. I was an idiot.

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Gore-Tex makes me happy, even in the crazy Himalayan rain

Don’t be an idiot. If you are planning on going anywhere with the likely chance of rain (i.e. the side, top, bottom of a mountain; the rainforest; anywhere with a rainy season), do yourself a favor and BUY A GORE-TEX JACKET. I’m a Patagonia girl, so it’s always my first go to for anything I put on my body for hiking, backpacking and camping, but you can buy GORE-TEX jackets from any of the big outdoor gear brands. They’re a pretty penny, so be prepared to fork over the cash. However, if you plan ahead, you can almost always find a great jacket on sale somewhere.


(2) Asolo Stynger Gore-Tex Boots

Like the rain jacket above, it doesn’t take long backpacking in the wrong boots to make you go a little crazy on the trail. I hiked (carrying most of my own gear) the Inka Trail in a pair of Keen’s that seemed the comfiest and best choice in REI a few months prior, but turned out to be absolute hell on the trail. Not only did I end up with a gnarly infected blister on one ankle (to be fair, I had a little incident a few weeks prior where I managed to drop a keg on my foot, but that scab was almost completely healed) and multiple blisters on my other foot from constant uncomfortable rubbing on my feet, but also these boots were not designed to carry heavy loads and were not manufactured with Gore-Tex (they were listed as “waterproof” however). So before my next mountain adventure (Mt. Kilimanjaro), I threw down some more serious dollar bills on a fantastic pair of Asolo boots. I haven’t had a single blister since (I also haven’t dropped a keg on my foot), I don’t have to worry about carrying heavy loads and feeling every stone or crevasse below my feet, and my feet always stay dry (even in torrential downpour and adventures through snow covered swamp lands).

If I didn’t make my feelings explicitly clear above, GORE-TEX IS THE MOST AMAZING INVENTION EVER. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking or backpacking, do not cheap out on this–get yourself some boots that are totally and completely waterproof. You also need a pair of boots that your feet love. I love Asolos for their durability and construction, but you don’t need to buy the exact brand I love. Everyone is different. There are other great brands out there that have really wonderful backpacking boots (my mom, my sister and many of my friends really love these Vasque boots).


(3) Osprey Aura 65 AG Pack

This number is a bit of wildcard as it is a fairly new purchase that hasn’t been tested out-and-about like my other items on this list. However, I put it here for a very important reason: it was purchased after a very thorough and detailed fitting with VERY competent employees at REI.

Prior to purchasing my new Osprey pack, I had been using a Gregory Jade 60 that I was never properly fitted in. I was a backpacking newb and didn’t know any better, but this was an expensive mistake for me. I lived with it for a few years, but decided this year that it was time to find my right pack. When I finally went back to REI and explained what had been going wrong, two employees immediately went to work dissecting the problem. They put me in a variety of Gregory packs and quickly concluded that despite having a torso and hip size that should fit in the specific pack I had, the pack was not sitting right on my body. Both of the employees then started putting me in other brands and quickly found that the Osprey backpacking packs were fitting me much better than anything else. From my preliminary tests on the pack, it feels absolutely amazing. I had no idea a pack could feel so comfortable on your back.

Like the two items above, a backpacking pack is not something you should cheap out on (and honestly, this might be the most expensive item you buy for backpacking). I would also advise strongly against bargain hunting for a backpacking pack. You need a pack that fits you right not one that is the cheapest, and if you don’t have the knowledge to fit yourself in a pack, seriously go to an REI or an Eastern Mountain Sports or any knowledgeable outdoor store and have someone who does know what they are doing fit you into a pack. Also, be aware of return policies. Many outdoor stores, like REI, let you try and return, so there is no need to suffer unnecessarily like I did for so long.


(4) Big Agnes Sleeping System: (Big Agnes Grouse Mountain 15 Sleeping Bag/Big Agnes Q-Core Sleeping Pad)

My Big Agnes Grouse Mountain 15 Sleeping Bag was one of my first purchases in my newb days of hiking/backpacking/camping, and I still absolutely love it. As with all Big Agnes sleep system sleeping bags, it has a pocket on its underside to place and tie down a sleeping pad. This might be the most amazing thing about the bag; I never ever slip of my sleeping pad! And while the temperature rating (15-degrees) is for men (it is a men’s bag–I wanted the room in the bag to sleep on my side), I’ve never been cold in my bag.

Now for the sleeping pad. I used a Therm-a-Rest ProLite for a few years. It’s a well designed pad especially for those who want to cut weight on the trail, but it just wasn’t for me. The pad is supposed to be self-inflating, but I almost always had to inflate it myself. The main downside of this pad for me was it’s thickness. I’m a side sleeper, so even when I force myself to fall asleep on my back, I usually wake up laying on one shoulder or another. This pad was just too thin: my arms would constantly fall asleep during the night and I could almost always feel the ground below me. After a few years with the Therm-a-Rest pad, I decided to cash in some REI dividend to get a new pad: the Big Agnes Q-Core. This pad does require quite a bit of inflating (you can buy a foot pump, but on the trail this is really unnecessary weight) and does pack slightly larger than the Therm-a-Rest ProLite; however, it’s thickness, comfort and insulation capabilities were a huge improvement for me above my previous pad. Plus, it was designed to work with my sleeping bag.

There are lots of wonderful sleeping bags and pads out there, but I recommend Big Agnes to anyone that will listen. No matter what brand you buy, the most important thing is to make sure you are buying a bag and pad with the right specs for you (check the REI Sleeping Bag Advice for a really great detailed explanation on sleeping bags).


(5) Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent

My purchase of this Big Agnes tent was made possible through a very large REI dividend I received after my barrage of purchases for my semester abroad in East Africa (as well as my mothers purchases for Kilimanjaro) and a very awesome REI sale. I already owned a Big Agnes three man tent, so didn’t really need another tent; however, I wanted something much smaller and lighter that I could easily carry myself on the trail without hogging all the space in my pack. I settled on this two-man ultra-light weight tent because I wanted to be able to fit my gear inside the tent (rather than under the rain fly) when I was alone, but also wanted to be able to fit a second person in the tent. It’s been amazing. I haven’t, however, tried to fit Mike in it yet… so we’ll see if it’s still amazing after that.

I’m plugging Big Agnes because I love their products (I mean come on… they make tents with built in LEDs now!). Eureka, REI, Marmot, North Face (and many, many others) make great tents as well. Tents are pricey, but you can usually get them on sale if you are patient. Just do your research on what you need before buying.


(6) SmartWool Hiking Socks and Silk Liner Socks

These items are absolutely essential for me. I never go hiking anywhere without wool socks AND liners. I wear wool socks even in the blazing heat of summer (and no, my feet don’t sweat an ocean)–they actually dry much faster than anything made out of cotton and don’t stink as bad (well at least for normal people… just pray to whatever god that you don’t ever have to smell Mike’s feet after a day of hiking). In the winter, my thickest wool socks keep my toes nice and un-frozen. Liners are a god-send for anyone who has problems with blisters like I do. I have bumps on my ankles that can blister in two minutes if I don’t have liners on, but with liners I never have that issue. Another upside to wearing liners I’ve discovered is that your wool socks don’t break down as fast (the liners do, but those are much cheaper to replace).

SmartWool is my favorite brand of wool sock. REI does make a slightly cheaper pair, but I found that those wear down a bit faster than SmartWools. I hike a lot, so I invested in a good bunch of SmartWools which I’ve had since I went to Tanzania and Kenya in 2012. As for the liners; I haven’t found a brand that treats my feet as nicely as the REI silk liners.


(7) Black Diamond Spot Headlamp

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sunrise at the crater’s edge on Kilimanjaro after climbing in the dark all night

I don’t think I need to elaborate much on this item. It gets dark when you camp. You will need light. You can stick a headlamp on your head and not have to worry about carrying it around all night. You also might need said headlamp to summit a giant mountain because you had to set off from base camp at 11pm the night before. This Black Diamond headlamp is cool because it has different light settings (so you don’t blind the guy sitting across from you while playing an epic game of Euchre), but there are definitely other headlamps out there with similar or better features.


(8) SteriPEN Ultra Water Purifier

While I have done plenty of hiking, backpacking and camping in the past few years, it wasn’t until my trip to Nepal this spring that I actually had to worry about water treatment. Seems strange, I know, but I’ve always either (a) had water boild safe or been able to boil my own water safe or (b) had safe drinking water readily available. I decided to buy the SteriPEN Ultra because it’s small, lightweight and really easy to use (it tells you when your water is ready with a smiley face). This magnificent tool treats water through UV rays. While it obviously doesn’t remove large chunks of matter in your drinking water (you would need a whole other filtration system for that), it does kill off all the bad things in the water that might make you sick. Mike tells me it’s the same process water treatment facilities use on their own waters–so that’s pretty cool. The only major downside of the SteriPEN Ultra is that you have to charge it via a USB. However, the charge on my SteriPEN lasted the whole 10-day Annapurna Base Camp trek (with lots of battery to spare), and you can always carry a portable charger with you on a trek. For an extended trek, you would likely need to think of secondary options as well (like tablets or filters).


(9) CamelBak StoAway 100 Reservoir

I bought this puppy while at field camp in Park City, Utah in the middle the summer. My uninsulated CamelBak just wasn’t staying cold enough in the heat even when filling it with ice to start the day. Not really sure why I didn’t think of getting one sooner, but alas, you live and you learn (and spend more money at REI). This insulated CamelBak not only keeps things cool in heat, but also keeps things from freezing when super cold (my CamelBak froze while summiting Kilimanjaro and those who had the insulated CamelBaks did not have that problem).


(10) Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody

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cozy (and excited) in our Patagonia down sweaters at Annapurna Base Camp

I started my list with a Patagonia jacket, so it’s only right that I finish with another one. The Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody is probably my favorite purchase from Patagonia ever. Not only does it keep me unbelievably warm, but it also packs down into a teeny tiny little pocket located on the inside of the jacket. If hoods aren’t your thing, Patagonia also makes a Down Sweater without the hoody (but I freaking love me some hoods). I bought Mike the down sweater without a hood for his birthday so that he didn’t drag around his giant winter coat in Nepal, and boy was he happy he had it (told you so Mike).

If you plan on doing any type of trekking in colder regions, I highly recommend you get some sort of packable down jacket. You don’t want to be lugging around a heavy parka or ski jacket on the side of the mountain (or really any trail for that matter), but you do want something that will keep you warm. Like the Patagonia rain jacket I had at number 1, every outdoor company makes their own packable down–just try stuff on and find what you like best.


Honorable mentions:

Quick dry clothes: Don’t pull a Mike and go to Nepal without a single quick-dry shirt. His cotton shirts were so sad and wet (and stinky) but the end of the trek he almost couldn’t find anything to wear home on the plane. I could do a whole separate post on my favorite outdoor clothing (and likely will sometime in the future, so I didn’t link anything here). But I’ll just say this one more time: PATAGONIA.

Camp kitchen: this probably should be on my top ten list–you do need to eat on the trail, but I’ve somehow managed to survive most of my backpacking and camping experiences with very limited camp kitchen gear (I’m not including the few “fancier” treks I’ve been on when food has been prepared for me by a group chef or tea house cook… that was almost cheating). JetBoils are wonderful, I have one that I’m dying to get out and use, so if you’re looking for something that’s compact and easy to carry and also a way for you to cook some grub, a JetBoil is a great place to start.

Chacos: for those of you that have a pair, I don’t need to explain. These babies come EVERYWHERE with me. They are perfect when you make camp and want to get out of your hiking boots. They are perfect for light day hikes and explorations. They are even perfect for every sort of summer festival you could imagine.

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the glorious Buff keeping my hair out of my eyeballs and my ears nice and toasty up on Ankareh Ridge in Park City, UT

Buffs: if you’ve hiked with me, you’ve seen me in these. They keep my hair out of my face. They keep my ears warm in surprise cold winds. They also keep my most sunburn prone area from getting burnt (i.e. my forehead). Plus they come in pretty fun colors and patterns.

Trekking poles: these didn’t make my official list because they usually just get in my way. I find one pole useful in some steep, rugged uphills and downhills, but usually these stay collapsed on the side of my pack. However, for those who have knee issues or who have issues with balance on the trail, these are an absolute necessity!

Quick-dry packable towel: you likely won’t be doing much bathing while out on a trail, but these towels are great to have on hand for un-foreseen cleaning or swimming opportunities or even just quick wipe-downs.

Hammock: this was left off the list mainly because it’s not a necessity for me. I love my brand new Eno Hammock SingleNest (I’ve drooled over everyone else’s for years), but if I was worried about weight, this would probably be left behind.

…and obviously don’t forget a first aid kit (common sense people) and a decent camera.


If you looked at any of the links I’ve provided or if you’re an avid backpacker yourself, you’ve obviously already discovered that backpacking items can be extremely expensive. My best advice is to always plan ahead. If you have future trek planned, don’t wait until the last minute to buy what you need. With the exception of my pack, all of the items on my top ten list were purchased on-sale or with an REI dividend. When I know I need something, I usually shop around to make sure I’m getting the best price. REI, Backcountry and Moosejaw are some of my favorite online shops, but also be sure to check out the manufacturers website or local shops as well.

And if you’re like I was a few years ago and have a long way to go before you’re fully “equipped” to hike/backpack/camp on your own, remember to start with the most important items. I put a Gore-Tex rain coat as my number 1 item because I refuse to go anywhere without it, but it’s probably not essential to get started. If you already have a rain jacket (even if it’s not Gore-Tex), start with the boots or the pack. If you can’t afford a tent or sleeping bag right off the bat, borrow from a friend or rent (lots of outdoor stores actually rent all the items you would need for any trek), and if you’re going abroad on a trek check with your trekking company–both my Kilimanjaro and Nepal trek groups provided sleeping bags, shelter and other expensive trekking items in the trek cost!.

Happy trekking!

Boulder(ing)

I’ve only been settled in Boulder for a little over a month (and I’m definitely still a Boulder newb), but I thought it was about time to make everyone not living here a little jealous with my gloriously insightful observations in my brand spanking new blog.

There is not a single bad view to be had here. Unless of course, flatirons and snowcapped mountains and forests and grasslands just don’t get your inner nature freak going.

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View from South Boulder Peak

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View from Bear Peak

Everyone here is fit. Okay, probably not everyone… but when you get passed by 70 year olds on the running trails while sucking some serious wind (which is even more demoralizing by the fact that you could run 6-8 miles at sea level no problem), it’s hard to believe that you’re not the most out of shape person in all of Boulder.

Trailheads are everywhere. Seriously. EVERYWHERE. I’ve never lived somewhere with so many options for exploring the outdoors and so many opportunities for instagramable photos.

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Mount Sanitas Trail

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Top of Flagstaff

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Flagstaff Trail overlooking Boulder Valley

Boulder is a bikers mecca. It seems everyone and their mothers and grandmothers have at least one bike (commuter, mountain, road bike… even those fancy sitting bikes). I can’t say I’ll ever dabble in the world of mountain biking (no way am I coordinated enough for that), but I’ll sure join all the crazy spandex rocking cyclists. Don’t worry lungs, I’ll stay on the flats for awhile.

The weather. When I was here in February, it snowed and then it was 65 degrees and then it snowed again. After the dreary, cold, never-ending Midwestern winters I’ve suffered through most of my life, I can’t say I’ll complain about that. Bonus: the flatirons are probably the most beautiful when covered in snow. As for the summer weather: mornings are mild even when the days are hot. And humidity… what humidity? Seriously, no weather complaints here.

The CU-Boulder campus is beautiful especially with the Flatirons in the background (UW-Madison, you’ve got some serious competition). And for a geologist attending graduate school here… HOLY CRAP. There are so many cool things to see and learn from here, especially from one of the best geology programs in the country (#9 for ‘Best Geology Graduate School Programs’ and #2 for ‘Best Global Universities for Geosciences’).

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Farrand Field and the Flatirons

Falling in love with Boulder has been easy, and I honestly can’t think of anything to complain about (except of course not being able to breathe while running… which I’ve clearly already complained about above). I can guarantee that I will throw a tantrum of epic proportions if or when I have to leave after my PhD.