Monday, June 23, 2008

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is world famous. If you've never heard of it, I bet you've seen pictures many times. Slot canyons are another unique feature of this part of Arizona and Utah - narrow, snaking fissures in the desert rock which are dry for except for the brief flash floods which shape them.

If you visit, pick your time of day. Late morning brings great light but also packs of tripod-wielding photographers who make War of the Worlds look like a walk in the park. We kept our cool, took our time and were rewarded with the canyon all to ourselves.


Desert days and nights

Spring is the perfect time to visit the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Mary and I spent 4 days and a couple of nights trekking and camping in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. We had a backcountry permit for an area called Chesler Park, an arid meadow surrounded on all sides by the towering spires of rock which give Needles its name.

This is spectacular country and a unique landscape. The deep canyons and impossible looking buttes are instantly recognisable as the American West. Nowhere else on earth looks like this. Spending nights under the stars (so many stars!) is a special experience, the sky so clear and dark you can see satellites tracking silently overhead.

One of the disadvantages of trekking and camping in the desert is you have to carry in all your own water - or find it. Lugging 15 litres of water makes you wonder if that titanium cookware set in your rucksack was worth the expense.

Mary enters Chesler Park.

A desert flower.

Another desert flower.

Balloon prepares to fly over Monument Valley.

Monumental Monument Valley.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I was motivated to write something after reading a post on BBC News reporting Chinese reaction to the Olympic torch protests - which seem to be universally hostile to demonstrations in the west. I've no idea how representative the comments are, but since it's the good old BBC (who I trust beyond all reason), and given that Britain enjoys uncensored free speech, I'm prepared to believe they're at least commonly held views among Han Chinese.

The posts make several points, most of which made my blood boil. Grrrr:

  1. The Olympics are non-political and should not be used by protestors to make a political point.
  2. Tibet has been part of China "for more 1,000 years" [sic].
  3. China has poured huge resources into Tibet to develop the economy.
  4. Tibet was previously a very unequal, feudal society.
  5. Most Westerners haven't been to China and misunderstand the country and it's politics.
  6. Westerners are hypocritical in their condemnation given their own human rights abuses at Guantanamo, Iraq and other places.
Lets vent some spleen at these points, in order.
  1. Beijing is out to make as much political capital out of the Olympics as possible and if you live by the sword, expect to feel it poking you in the jacksy from time to time. Among the torch-related stunts we still have to look forward to are a procession though Tibet itself (to show Chinese unity, naturally) and climbers carrying the torch to the summit of Everest. No political controversy there then.
  2. This is just wrong. Sadly I don't have the space to summarise 1,000 years of Tibetan and Chinese history here, but there are plenty of books on the subject. For maximum accuracy, try reading one that's been not been approved for publication by the Chinese Communist Party. My recent personal favorites can be bought here and here.
  3. This is true, but in no way excuses the systematic destruction of an entire culture, religion and way of life. 98% of Tibet's religious buildings were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Ever notice the UN or Oxfam battling Buddhist monks on the street? No, me neither.
  4. Also true, but again, no reason for a military invasion, unless you're a Maoist of course, when it turns out to be all the justification you need. Unhelpfully, the oppressed masses that were 'liberated' by Mao have ever since demanded the return of the Dalai Lama. Don't those ungrateful proles don't know a good oppressive dictatorship when they see one?
  5. I suspect a greater proportion of westerners have been to China than Chinese have been to Tibet. And what do Chinese see if they visit? The Chinese tourists we saw in Tibet were all lead around in large, homogenous tour groups and you can bet the violent history of the Cultural Revolution wasn't on the itinerary. The main reason to go to Tibet for a Han Chinese is the big subsidy the government gives you to resettle there in order to dilute the ethnic Tibetan population.
  6. It's a terrible shame that Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other recent western abuses have undermined our moral authority. But the deaths of millions of Tibetans in the Great Leap Forward and tens of thousands more in the Cultural Revolution, hardly compares to Guantanamo (where I hear the medical faciities are excellent). And it's probably best not to get started on Chinese Support for the governments of North Korea, Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the bigger question is, should we pay any attention to the opinions of someone who lives in a country where information, and thus opinion, is state controlled?

Don't worry, I'm not gonna get all misty-eyed about the Dali Lama. But since the DL's image is banned, simply printing this page in China (including Tibet) would mean jail time (bird for petty, as they say back home). Thankfully little Picotrip is unlikely to get anyone banged up in China since you can't read it there, as I reported from Tibet in an earlier post.

Oh, and I've switched on comments, in the interests of free speech and the right to reply ;-) Let's see if we get any.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The West Highland Way

Last summer, Mary and I walked the West Highland Way - a 95 mile trek across the Highlands of Scotland. It runs from the outskirts of Glasgow, along the length of Loch Lomond, Britain's largest lake, across Rannoch Moor and past famous and dramatic Glen Coe. The Way finishes in the Highlands at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain.

Rannoch Moor is Britain's largest uninhabited wilderness - dramatic, wild and beautiful. At just 50 square miles however, it serves as a reminder of how densely populated Britain is. 50 square miles would be swallowed up in the American West or the Australian Outback. I wonder if there might even be 50 square miles in America where no one has ever set foot? It seems entirely conceivable that there are small areas in the West that were as unappealing and inhospitable to Native Americans as they are to the population today.

A lot of trouble to emphasize the bleedin' obvious: Scale drawings of the USA and UK. The black square inside the UK represents 50 miles square. The tiny white square inside that represents 50 square miles - the size of Rannoch Moor, Britain's largest uninhabited wilderness. It also happens to be about the same size as the city of San Francisco. It's easier to see if you click for a larger image.

On the banks of Loch Lomond, Britain's largest lake and stunning it is too.

On Rannoch Moor. Hey! I thought you said it was uninhabited!

Mary finds the way. Don't say anything, but she's standing next to a trail marker.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Into the Backcountry

Mary, Rockett and I took a 2 day backcountry trip in and around Mammoth Lakes in the Californian High Sierra. We learned a bunch of new techniques, mostly for going *uphill* - and much about avalanche awareness.

There's something very satisfying about knowing you earned every downhill turn by having climbed for it first. Even more gratifying was the fresh powder we got to ski from a storm 48 hours earlier. I think we'll be back very soon. Perhaps that's why they call it the backcountry.

Tip: click the grey play button in the center of the video to play it in this page (clicking outside the play button will take you to the youtube website and play the video there).

Contrails linger in the cold sky above Mono Lake on the way to Mammoth.

Our guide Neil, Rockett and Mary ski towards Red Cone, our destination on day 2.

Rockett learns to read the subtle signs of the backcountry...

... and how to perform oh-so-elegant uphill kick turns.

Mary skis a gully on the decent from Red Cone.

Happy skiers framed by our first tracks down Red Cone Bowl.

A stitch-together of sunset over Mono Lake. Click on the picture for a decent sized version.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mr Silent Kay

The last 2 years of our lives have been stalked by a shadowy figure. Although his only trace was a small scar, his influence never left us and for a while he was the most important character in our lives. He became such a fixture of our conversation, particularly those back home, that he assumed his own identity. Recently he's become a less frequent visitor but he can still make his presence felt. Mr Silent Kay is never far away.

Two years ago Mary's knees were equally noteworthy - and only for their aesthetic appeal. All that changed in the instant of a bad fall in Alaska, and Mr Silent Kay entered our lives.

Mary underwent reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee. The procedure replaces the damaged ACL with a piece taken from another ligament in the knee. It's a very clever procedure performed by arthroscopy - a minimally invasive keyhole surgery using a type of endoscope. Still, it meant we were out of action for an entire summer while Mary was first immobile and then on crutches. Mary missed last years ski season, but she's back this year. Mr Silent Kay is here too and perhaps even enjoying himself a little.

Tip: click the grey play button in the center of the video to play it in this page (clicking outside the play button will take you to the youtube website and play the video there).

Friday, February 8, 2008

Ski Movie!

Silent Kay productions, in association with picotrip is proud to announce our first microcontent-length feature.

On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of all-mountain skiing and to ensure that the handful of men and women who graduated could make parallel turns in all conditions. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Ski School. The flyers call it: TOP FUN.

Ghost Rider, this is Strike. We have unknown aircraft inbound Mustang. Your vector zero-nine-zero for bogey.

Tip: click the grey play button in the center of the video to play it in this page (clicking outside the play button will take you to the youtube website and play the video there).

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ducking the Rope

If you want to ski fresh, untracked powder and lay down the first run in a freshie, you've got 3 choices:

  1. Get up at the crack of dawn after a big storm at a resort.
  2. Go heliskiing.
  3. Go backcountry.
Option 1 might be the simplest, but you'll probably only get one or two runs before everything is skied-out. Anyone who knows Mary and I will also realise, this is not an option available to us.
Option 2 guarantees a lot of runs, but is hellishly expensive.
Option 3 involves a lot of hiking up for each run down, and sometimes camping out in the snow. Unless...

Ducking the rope at the edge of a ski area and skiing out-of-bounds gets you backcountry skiing, with a lift at the end of each run. Fresh, untracked powder every run, all day. You may loose your pass, but for conditions like this, isn't it worth it? And ski patrol have to catch you first ;-)

Name the skier and win an invitation to our 'lil ski cabin in Tahoe!