Thursday, April 15, 2010
Monday, December 28, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
"The things that you try to hold on to...they're the first to go,
and all the things that you try to forget, these are the things that stick."
"The world is hard and cold. It can hurt you bad, but it doesn't mean to. It's nothing personal, but you've gotta try pretty god damn hard not to take it personally."
Stumbled upon the short story which smashing pumpkins's Try is interlaced with. The geographic geek in me noted the British accent voiceover, dreaming of California, while getting freezed off in Stockholm.
Friday, November 06, 2009
Sunday, November 01, 2009
There were a smattering of people on the peak with me. Spent some time taking a few more photos before making the momentous decision--to cross the Knife Edge or not. I am no longer smiling--I am grimacing at what lies ahead of me.
At this point in time, it must be said that the weather was perfectly fine, with a healthy dose of sunshine beating down on me drenching me in sweat. I am worried more about my lack of water supply (and the fear of falling) more than anything else. I could not have imagined any other worse dangers to come.
A father-and-son team came back down from that mound, and told me, "That path is not looking good, and I am not going to take the risk with my boy here." Ominous indeed.
But seriously, how can I turn my back now that I am tantalizingly close to reaching the peak of Mount Katahdin? I could join the father-and-son team right now, but I could not live with the fact that on this day, I turned my back on Katahdin. So i dispelled the notion and forged ahead.
To start on Knife Edge proper, you have to actually descend and then ascend two rockfaces, which form some sort of a valley. This is the valley, with breathtaking views of the entire expanse of forest, rivers and the basins which I trekked though.
The father-and-son team disappear up towards the left side of the valley, back to the relatively safe embrace of the Helon Taylor trail.
This is the right side of the valley, where I saw another team making their way down a path which I was to climb later. This team had done the Knife Edge trail first, and plan on getting down via the Helon Taylor. They had the hard part behind them already.
Knife edge, here goes. The time now is around 1pm, and the sun is still beating mercilessly down.
Doing the Knife Edge proves to be extremely tough for me. I am in fact, not climbing anymore, but reduced to crawling on all fours due to the razor-thin width of the ridge. The fear of falling off the cliff is extreme here. Plus the fact that I have to lug 2 backpacks around--one food supply, one camera bag, which was compromising my state of balance. And I was wishing I had a compact camera with me instead. The D70 is obviously a luxury I can ill-afford ( with my inexperience at mountain climbing).
To prevent the backpack from tumbling over the cliffs, I use my toggle rope to fasten them to me. Handy tools, the toggle ropes.
It is difficult to depict how perilous and treacherous (to borrow the cliches normally reserved for the obligatory mountain passes that fantasy heroes need to cross) the path is. So instead, I took, while sitting on a boulder, the views exposing my left leg,
...and then my right leg. Any false steps, and that's it. The dull ache of the fear has grown into an incessant drum beat--probably from my heart. My heart pounds a little even as i am typing this. I am just glad I am not up there anymore.
Putting things into perspective, then a team of like half a dozen actually skipped past me. Girls, in frilly convent dress and beach sunhat, no less! I drew inspiration from them, and the fact that they are girls, and I forged ahead, boulder by boulder...
...until the trail seemingly comes to an abrupt stop. Of course I could see the blue arrow pointing forward, but I don't see ANY trail. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Luckily a mountain goat came along, and showed me how to do it. "What's the problem?" he asks. He was kind enough to carry my camera bag across this crazy ledge, after which I had no choice but to gingerly tread across with him. I am representing all Asians on this mountain, and I have already lost enough face crawling along on all fours. "There is no question about not crossing this ledge! So quit whining about wanting to go home!", I shouted at my inner voice.
Made it across that fiendishly scary ledge. Alas, the mountain goat was the last mammal I was to see on that day. What transipired to turn this adventure into a nightmare was something else totally unexpected.
Dark clouds had gathered, and a mist had suddenly descended upon me. Visibility was reduced to 10-m at most. And can somebody turn off that woo-woo-woo sound. I can't even hear myself anymore. Its 3pm, and 4 terrifying hours were to pass before I could take another picture.
The heavens soon opened up, and rain fell hard on me. Here I was stranded up on the topmost mountain ridge, in a valiant attempt to crawl my way to Baxter Peak, and the deadly combination of rain, mist and wind are trying to thwart my bid.
Then it happened. A flash lighted up the entire expanse of the mountain range, as far and and wide as the eye could see. This was no longer just a silly rainstorm. It was a thunderstorm, of the biblical proportion. Sometimes the things you learnt in school could save your life. I learnt that the higher up and the more exposed you are up on a mountain ridge, the more likely you are to be struck by lightning. The first thing i did was to scramble off the ridge. Fear of falling? That was so yesterday. I was precipitating from the fear of being struck by lightning even as I was being drenched by the pouring rain.
As luck would have it, the part of the ridge where I was caught gave me more room to maneuver around, and I could at least pick the widest ledge on which to set up my tent-- which consists basically of just the ground sheet covering me. The ledge even had a sort of a V-shape hull to it, where I can lie my entire body down, shielding me somewhat from the fierce winds. But I was beginning to shiver already.
So I had to make sure that the openings of the ground sheet was sealed securely--either with my limbs or by stuffing it frantically through the rocks. It was a rather fragile, but not exactly futile attempt. Sometimes the winds would flay one side open, and I had to scramble to close that gap. I felt like the Dutch boy who had to plug the gaping holes with his fingers when the dyke broke. When I finally settled down, I could barely hear myself panting from the exertions. The winds were still howling outside.
I was still shivering, but no longer uncontrollably. Any unnecessary movements would have me shivering all over again. So with my 4 limbs sealing off the ground sheet against the rocks around me, I was contorted into a rather uncomfortable position lying in the V-shape ledge. Economy of movement is of utmost importance here. Be still, be still, I keep telling myself.
Then it happened again. This time I felt somebody light up a blinding flash inside my groundsheet. I was counting aloud now, "one thousand, two thousand, three thousand....", till I came to 12, before the thunder finally roared. Mathematical calculations were racing across my mind. If sound were to travel at the speed of 330m/s and light at 300000000 m/s....ah...fuck it, let's assume speed of light to be infinite here....how far away is the actual lightning storm from me?" About 4km. I was hugely relieved as of now.
The next flash came soon after. I counted again, and each time I counted, I realised the storm was getting nearer and nearer. Like a soldier hunkering inside a trench, with enemy shells exploding all over me, I was wondering when would the next flash be intended for me. The crack of the thunder became even more intense. My ears were prickling, working on overdrive, straining to hear where the sound came from. I need not have bothered. The crack was evidently right in front of me, but the sound reveberated throughout the peaks. So a roar actually diffused into a chain of echos that reverberated all around me and disappeared towards my back. The storm was coming from the front. It was a surround sound system any Omnimax theatre would have been proud of.
I could feel the clouds marching ominously towards me. Fear turned to anger, and I tore open my ground sheet, looked skywards, and came face to face with the storm clouds. Dark and imposing, they were Sauron's troops hunting for hobbits along the mountain ridges, and I was shielded from their methodical gaze by my magic blanket. Lightning struck, and the thunder rang so loud inside my ears. I had run out of space-time to count the "thousands". I thought this was it. Ok, how does it feel to be dead? Maybe it wont be so bad. I would be immediately delivered from my agony now, and I could just fly away from here, fly to wherever I want to go. Thoughts of my family back in Singapore, and how I would now be just another statistic on Mount Katahdin made me feel like a damn fool. Wait. I was still breathing, nothing was burning. They must have struck another peak. I was cowering underneath my groundsheet, and had no idea where it struck. It could easily have been for me. I was now playing a game of Russian roulette with the thunderstorm. About a dozen, maybe 2 dozen peaks. I am astride between 2 of them. Who'll insure me now? Perhaps the risk-loving executives at AIG.
At this point, I was already soaked to the bone, and the cruel irony was I was getting extremely thirsty. I thought I may have to camp up here for the rest of the night, and knew I could go without food for a few days, but not without water. The ground sheet began to sink with the weight of rain water collecting on its top. I was not going to let them go to waste, and began to drink the water off the sheet. I clumsily spilled some onto the ground, but what the heck. I stooped down to clear the water that collected on the rocks. I'll worry about the ringworms later.
I had my watch with me. Tick tock tick tock, it had been like 2 hours, but the rain was relentless. Thunder cracked again. This time the sound reveberated from back to front now. I heaved a sigh of relief. The storm had passed behind me. Possibly the worst is over? I shouted with glee, the worst is over! The worst is over! And uttered some expletives, something to the tune of "fuck you storm". Maybe it was my imagination, but the mountains returned the echoes of my curses.
7pm. The rain had eased into a drizzle. The mist had parted to reveal what was a ethereal sight in front of me. I could almost see the whole of the basin that drains the mountain rivers to the ocean. For a moment I allowed myself to weep. I thought I had never seen something so achingly beautiful before. I could die contented right here.
Taking advantage of the lull, I tot I should snap some photos for keepsake should i make it back alive and well. In spite of the cold, I proceeded to take the only exposed part of my "tent", which was the dreaded fall-off from the V-shaped ledge.
I began to decamp (aka stuffed the groundsheet into the bag) and continue my trek on Knife Edge. But I began to shiver badly again, with the high winds threatening to blow me off the ridge. Fear of hypothermia set in. In fact, hypothermia claims more victims on mountain-top accidents. This could not do--I had to wait out the winds. I set up camp again, trying to shield myself from the wind. I lay on another crevice for a while. It felt warm and cosy. I was drifting to sleep. But there was something wrong with this crevice, comfortable though it felt to me. It felt too much like a grave--my grave. Now came another momentous decision. Should I or should I not camp here? What if I were to be found dead here? Reduced to curling up like a fetus hugging a bag of rotten stinking carrots for food. Or I could end up as the next ice-age man a million years from now. Not appealing at all. Morever, I had the stinking suspicion that my shivering and shaking were just a dirty excuse by the lazy self not to push hard for the summit. So I tell myself, if I were to die, I had better die trying to get to the summit, rather than lying inside what amounts to a very probable early grave for me. My new rallying cry: If you must die, die with dignity!
So I packed up (this time I left the pack of carrots behind, whose stench were to stain my raincoat and bag for an entire week) and forged ahead. This time, I no longer crawled. I skipped, I rushed, I jumped, I hopped--all in the furious attempt to get to the summit. It seemed neverending, all these rocks and boulders that I had to traversed. But looking back, I'm sure it was psychological. The uncertainties of your destination always make your journey seem that much longer. Actually in a short while, a little under 1 hour, I finally reached the summit. So I had proven right that the shivering were just an excuse not to do climb the last stretch of the trail. I actually had enough body heat in me to come all the way up here. It was 8pm by then.
Katahdin. The real summit. The end of the Appalachian trail. The holy grail.
As promised, the way down from the summit proved to be much gentler. It consist of a vast area of almost flat and desolate terrain they call the tableland. It was one of the very few tundra landscapes existing in USA, so there were lots of efforts put into trying to conserve the Artic flora up here. I was spellbound by the utter beauty of it all. The delicate and tender light of the moon had once again lighted up a very beautiful path for me to follow. For a while, I just stood there, contemplating in reverential silence at the solitude of the land.
Anyway, my hopes of getting back safely to base camp were dashed. The tableland falls off rather abruptly towards the edge. There was no way i could attempt to climb down at night in wet and slippery conditions ( I had slipped a few times while walking on flat land). So, I decided to spend a night up here on top of Mount Katahdin. Later around 2am, an ever fiercer storm hit Katahdin, but I was too jaded and tired to care anymore. Worried though I was, I thought I had played up my chances of being hit by lightning too much. Airplane flights do hit periods of turbulence, but the probability of a plane crash is still rather too remote. In fact, I was unable to proceed all the way till around 7am the next day, when the storm gave way to an incessant drizzle, and lastly to the morning mist. But since I am penning this entry right now, it's just another case of all's well that ends well.
But I'm not proud to say that a search party was underway in the morning looking for me. They had this system of requiring all hikers to sign out prior to embarking on the mountain trail, and signing in again upon return. The rangers would cross-check with each other across all the different check-points to confirm all hikers were safely back by evening. So when I failed to sign back in that evening, they already knew there was someone trapped up there in the mountains.
Next morning. Tom the ranger who "rescued" me. We were mighty relieved to see each other, perhaps me more than him. He has a youthfulness which belies his 40 years of age. Amazing. The mythical elixir of youth must be flowing through these mountains. Ever gregarious, he shared with me his adventures up in the mountains, down in the rapids, and his first love--fly fishing, and how he was so relieved not to have to call up the Coast Guards for yet another missing hiker (about a dozen a year, it seems.) I was apologising profusely for having wasted their precious time and resouces due to recklessness on my part. But he would have none of it and stated firmly, "This is our job. This is what we rangers do." Anyway it just goes to show the critical importance of staying on the trails. As long as you stay on the trails, the rangers will be bound to find you.
A write-up about Katahdin via Knife Edge in one of the guides I was to find only later. Would I then have attempted the Knife Edge after reading this? I have no idea, but my friend thinks that words like "most dangerous" and "extreme exposure" and "many fatalities" would, instead of discouraging me, only spur me on. Maybe he's right. And I have a strange feeling that my story with the mountains is not over yet. The heartbreaking beauty of the mountains may once again lure me up there. Some day.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
A trader is like a surfer. He analyses wind conditions and tide levels and catches the waves just as they are about to form.
A trader is like a midnight clubber. The booze is on, the music is playing, there are hundreds of people dancing, but everybody has his eye on the exit door.
A trader is like a hunter. He waits in stealth, locks in on his target, goes for the kill, and gets out fast. He lives by the motto "one shot, one kill".
A trader is like a coin-picker. The coins are littered all over the road. They seem easy pickings but a bulldozer is parked right there.
A trader is like a poker player. The market always acts like it has a hand. He either plays along with it or calls a bluff. And he has a trump card--stay out.
A trader is like a trench soldier. 90% sheer boredom, and 10% sheer terror.
A trader is like a daredevil. He makes his judgment of the braking distance, and stands in front of the locomotive train. Get it right, and he lives, but only if he gets it right.
A trader is like a doctor. He monitors the pulse of the market with the EEG, and when the market goes into cardiac arrest, he performs elaborate maneuvers to rescue the health of his portfolio--calmly.
A trader is like an alchemist. He transmutes what is essentially trading noise into the most precious resource of all--gold.
Monday, October 26, 2009
"The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, such as savages, do not climb mountains -- their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn".
Katahdin actually means the Greatest Mountain in native Indian language. The Indians are obviously not well-travelled. Katahdin is by no means the greatest mountain in the world, whose height (1600m, slightly taller than Cameron Highlands) would barely cause a ripple among the sheer enormity that is the Himalayas. But there must be something about this particular Maine mountain that so inspired such dramatic prose. So it was not mere coincidence that I decided to embark on this pilgramage in the summer of 2009 to Katahdin, having been acquainted with both the Appalachian mountains and Henry Thoreau before.
I took off on a 330-mile drive via Interstate 95 from Boston to Milinocket, the nearest town to Mount Katahdin. Car rental is costly, especially if you are travelling alone, so you can be sure that I had overturned every timetable in every single bus company (Greyhound, Vermont, Concord) that ply on the Maine roads before deciding to go rental. I keep telling myself, how much would I pay to see Katahdin, and the practicalities of financial matters paled into insignificance.
The mountain ranges loom far ahead , up among the clouds.
Welcome to Baxter State Park
Katahdin lies inside Baxter State Park. The story goes that Governor Percival Baxter was so spellbound by Katahdin that in order to prevent loggers from mining the surrounding area that he bought over the entire piece of land around the mountain, and entrusted it to the care of the state of Maine. That was how it became a state park. For the record, 204733 acres is slightly bigger than the island of Singapore.
The infrastrature of Baxter Park is laid out in this way: there is only one road leading into the Baxter Park, via an entrance. The nearest town, Milinocket, is probably 20 miles away. The base camps scattered around the main mountain ranges are located about 5 miles away from the entrance. You can elect to drive your vehicles to some of the base camps (like Roaring Brooks, Katahdin Stream and Abol), and you pay $24 per day for vehicle+man, or you park your car at the entrance and hike your way into the base camps--for $11 a night. At no time are you allowed to spend the night anywhere else in the park, so basically it means every night spent in Baxter State Park costs at least $11 per head.
I parked my car beside a lake, which was near the entrance. Seemingly tranquil and serene, but who knows what lurks beneath.
Since i would be away for a few days at least, thought it would be prudent to have the number plate recorded just in case the car gets stolen. But it was remarked to me (later of course) "nobody would come here to steal cars one lor." True.
Recording the numbers for security, not for 4D.
Spread out my barang-barang. From left to right:
Insect repellent (25% deet), Crumpler camera bag with D70, 17-70mm auto and 70-200 manual lens, a dozen toblerones and snickers, peanut butter, guide book with map of Baxter state Park, note book, Paul Theroux reading material and pencil, a pack of organic carrots, torch light, bread, Campbell soup tin can, 2 toggle ropes, rain coat, groundsheet, and an Adidas backpack.
Having never hiked overnight before in my life and lacking necessary experience, packing up has been a woeful hit-and-miss affair on hindsight. Why in the world would I want to carry reading materials up there? I realised my folly halfway up the mountain, with the weight of the books digging into my flesh. And what's with the 70-200mm lens? I had thought about it, and thought that I will never forgive myself if I come face to face with a bear and do not have a good zoom lens with which to shoot the bear with. Incredulously naive, because the first thing I should do is to make as much noise as possible to drive the bear away, and then run in the opposite direction--for dear life. On the other hand, the toggle ropes proved to be very useful later when the hikes turned to climbs. Finally, I can never overstate the importance of that humble groundsheet, without which, hmm, I could not contemplate beyond.
After packing my stuffs, remembering specifically to lock my car, and paying my dues to the rangers on duty at the entrance, I began to hike my way into Roaring Brooks camp with a spring in my steps. Loved every minute of it, but a very friendly ranger driving by insisted on picking me up along the way. Learnt from the ranger that Baxter State Park is a very well-policed park, with over 40 rangers on duty at any one time, unlike his last call of work, Denali National Park in Alaska, while 10 times larger in area, had only 4 rangers working in it. I guess he must have had a back-breaking time in Alaska. But I was getting excited too, because Denali (McKinlay) was also where Christoper Mccandles perished, and he must surely have heard of him, but I was careful to keep mum. I didn't want him to think of me as another silly college boy trying to tempt fate just because he watched "Into the Wild" on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Instead I joked about his workload being cut up by 40 times, which would otherwise never happen in the corporate world, and he beamed, "It certainly is!".
At this point in time doubts began to creep in. I had wanted this trip to be wild, but not so wild that I would lose my life, nor so mild to be like a walk in the park either. And with over 40 rangers policing every aspect of life in Baxter, it certainly sounded like a trip to Central Park indeed.
Spent a night inside one of the huts at Roaring Brooks camp. It is primitive, with wooden planks for bed and candles for light. "I am the noble savage, living in the primitive age of the world." It's always cool to be able to quote Thoreau and actually mean it. When darkness descends upon the land, the woods comes alive with fireflies dancing in the trees and the river sparkling with moonlight. These are enchanting moments that will remain in the deep recesses of my soul for long to come.
The morning after. Washing up beside Roaring Brooks, the icy-cold water stings me awake and hydrates me for what is going to a gruelling day.
I was carrying a few nigging fears with me at this point. I had forgotten about buying iodine pills in Boston, and was obsessed with the fear of drinking from the streams, until a fellow hiker said,"Just drink it up, let's worry about the ringworms later." Also, I had read that summertime was black fly season, and had heard stories from a Canadian traveller earlier that his face got stung so bad that it swelled for a few hours. So there, my 2 obsessions coming at the start of the hike, fear of black flies and fear of drinking poisoned water.
To get to the mountain proper, I had to cross a few miles of thick forest, but rest assured, paths have already been cleared for us. There is no need to trailblaze through. And, temperate forests, with their sparse undergrowth of soft lichen and moss, are a joy to walk in.
Into the wild...
Started the trail around 5am, with the sky already quite bright. I had elected to do the Helon Taylor trail, which is a hike with only a few climbs, after which it should adjourn to the infamous Knife Edge before reaching Baxter Peak, the tallest peak of Mount Katahdin.
This is the Helon Taylor trail, which involves jumping along these boulders.
Oh yea, and one more fear, the fear of getting my boots wet. So this stream was a considerable challenge in keeping my boots dry. My Timberland Gore-Tex held up nicely, and passed the test with flying colours. Of course I replenished my water supply here too. River streams don't come by so often in the wilderness.
A 2-m tall boulder, one of the few climbing challenges along the trail, facing me.
Easily done--looking down.
This is getting fun. At this point, I had still thought of Baxter State somewhat like a more rugged Sunday climb at the gym. I recalled the joke in the Peep Show, where Jeremy mentioned that "the world is his gym, the mountains, the rivers.", whereupon Mark concurred, "The world is my gym too, well, just that little bit where it is actually a gym." That's the polarity between country and city life.
Wildlife--I mustn't forget to photograph the wildlife I encountered along the way.
Slowly the treeline becomes more exposed. I think I am halfway up the mountain already.
The scenery gets more breathtaking as I go higher up.
I am soon up among the clouds. I expended approximately 5 hours of non-stop hiking to get to this far. Everything goes to plan. This is still a stroll in Central Park.
Uh-oh. The steepest climb yet. I think it was a 2.5-m climb here. There was no other way but to somehow haul myself up. After much difficulty, including throwing my 2 baggages over the top, could I actually overcome the boulders here.
After doing a few more 2-m haul-ups, I soon realised that its not so easy after all. Looking down, I was thinking, oh my gosh, I am actually CLIMBING now! Quelling my fears, I keep telling myself, "Comon, you've done all these before at the Kallang gym."
One advice they always give...
...Don't look down.
And a new fear supplanted the old ones--the fear of falling. This particular fear of falling is quite unlike that encountered in roller-coaster rides. It is as if the sheer intensity of a roller-coaster ride gets diffused across time, resulting in a less acute but no less palpable throbbing of the heart. It doesn't matter how high you go, because by the time you climb to a certain height, it doesn't make a difference to your brittle sack of flesh anymore. I was thinking, the Helon Taylor "Central Park" trail must have ended, and I must be on this so-called Knife Edge already. If so, then I must be near the peak already.
Is over yonder the peak? No it isn't.
Sometimes you couldn't see over yonder, and you thought that what you saw was the peak. You hastily scramble up, only to see yet another of such mound, and yet another, and yet another. Its beginning to take a toll on my physique.
Taking a break. I'm not alone in getting tired from all these humps.
Wildlife shots indicate my generally high state of morale for I still have it in me to find the mood, not to mention energy, to observe wildlife (mostly insects unfortunately) around me. For a while, I was worried about snakes lurking beneath the undergrowths. But bah...none whatsoever.
This is getting a bit hardcore now. Not unlike one of those fearsome obstacles you have to overcome in those Nintendo games in order to progress to the next stage. I was thinking, hmm, should I just give up and turn back? At this moment, the choice still lies with me, because I had hiked over what is not too difficult to backtrack--a gentle slope punctuated by some large boulder climbs.
It was really tough getting up that wall, but I kept telling myself, this must be the Knife Edge, and I must be nearing my journey. I was elated to see a signpost upon scaling that final rockface, only to realise its not Knife Edge. It was only the Helon Taylor Trail that I had done, and its already 11am now. I had taken 6 hours to trek just 3.2 miles? That must be terribly slow by anybody's standards. And in order to get to the real peak, Katahdin Peak, I have to trek through a 1.5 mile long ridge called the Knife Edge.
Signpost that says Pamola Peak (not Katahdin), and gently points Katahdin-bound hikers to what lies to their left...
...the Knife Edge.
to be continued...soon...