Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

Hiking the Three Passes route in Nepal’s Everest region

April 8th, 2011

Mount Everest viewed from Kala Pattar

We now pause for a short bit of self-promotion: my article in Sunday’s New York Times travel section is now available online. It’s about the trip to Nepal Lauren and I took last December, where we hiked a route called the Three Passes — a way of seeing the Everest region without spending all our time in the traffic jams along the route to Base Camp:

PERCHED on a narrow platform 17,500 feet above sea level, we paused to snack on boiled potatoes and the spicy Tibetan dumplings called momos, and to drink in the view.

We were at the top of the Renjo La, the pass that is the lowest point along a knife-edged ridge separating two valleys. Behind us, looming above a turquoise glacial lake, was Mount Everest. In front of us, an immense stone staircase led down into a valley dotted with roofless stone shelters and the occasional yak — a ribbon of green hemmed in by the soaring gray and white of Himalayan rock and ice.

Stunned into silence by the panorama, we descended the staircase and hiked on in a reverie. It wasn’t until we reached the banks of a fast-flowing river a few hours later that we noticed that the landscape no longer corresponded to the lines and dots on our map. We’d hiked for five hours without seeing another living soul, and, perhaps in part because of our solitude, somewhere along the way had taken a wrong turn…[READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE]

There’s also a nice slide-show accompanying the article, with some pictures from the trip.

Walking in a forest reduces blood pressure

March 29th, 2011

I present this research half in jest, and half seriously. There have been a bunch of studies lately purporting to show the magical benefits of spending time with nature, most of which qualify as pretty soft science. Still, even if the studies are full of uncontrolled variables and confounding factors, I like to think there’s a kernel of truth in the basic premise. So here are the details of this latest one, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology by researchers at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo.

They took 16 volunteers, and took them on two day trips a week apart. In one, they walked for two hours in a forest; in the other, they walked for two hours in “an urban area of Tokyo.” At 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on each of the days, the researchers took a boatload of measurements, including blood and urine samples. The simplest and clearest result was in blood pressure, shown here:

As you can see, blood pressure was lowered significantly by the forest walk compared to the urban walk. Why is this? The researchers suggest that the forest works its magic “by lowering the activity of the sympathetic nerve and increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nerve.” In support of this idea, they found that noradrenaline in the urine samples — a marker of sympathetic nerve activity — was lower after forest walking. So far as good. But how do forests do this?

We speculated that phytoncides (wood essential oils) from trees may have beneficial effects on blood pressure. Dayawansa et al. (2003) reported that cedrol (cedar wood oil) inhalation induced significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure compared to blank air together with an increase in parasympathetic activity and a reduction in sympathetic activity in humans.

Well… I suppose that could be the mechanism. But on the other hand, a far simpler possibility is that walking in a quiet, peaceful forest is more relaxing than battling the cars and pedestrian mobs of downtown Tokyo. It seems to me that the first order of business for this apparently burgeoning field of study is to look into some of these more obvious variables: noise levels, crowds, the chance of being flattened by a wayward bus. Until it’s clear that there’s some phenomenon that can’t be explained by these obvious factors, I don’t think we need to spend too much time pursuing magic tree oils.

(I suppose this is where I point out that the study was funded, with no apparent irony, by Japan’s Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute.)

Blogging from 5,500 metres

December 2nd, 2010
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Just a heads-up that I’m heading to Nepal for most of December, leaving in… about 15 minutes. I will still be updating the blog from the road at least a couple of times a week, but sporadic Internet access means that I probably won’t be able to respond to comments and questions while I’m gone. Needless to say, I’ll catch up on any comments, debates and so on as soon as I get back

(And if you find yourself disagreeing with any I write over the next few weeks, just assume that the lack of oxygen has gotten to my brain!)

Hiking in Papua New Guinea on the Kokoda Track

October 23rd, 2010


That’s a pic from Papua New Guinea, where Lauren and I went hiking a couple of months ago. It was a fantastic trip, and my article about it is now available on the New York Times website:

[…] We had been warned over and over to prepare ourselves for two things: mud and hills; hills and mud. While the highest point on the trail is a modest 7,000 feet, the accordionlike ridges and gullies mean you climb and descend more than 20,000 feet in total.

But it’s not the vertical that can break your spirit, we soon realized, it’s the horizontal — seeing the trail almost within arm’s reach in front of you, then realizing that you have to clamber 200 feet down a steep and muddy decline, wade through a stream or tiptoe across a slender log, then haul yourself back up the other side on wet clay. [READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE]

A few more pics from the trip:




How to run hills, part 2

September 7th, 2010

So much for the theory of hill running – now I have some practical wisdom to impart, after participating in my first World Mountain Running Championships on Sunday. For instance, sometimes walking is better than running…


The race was in Slovenia, just outside the town of Kamnik, on a course that climbed more than 1,200 metres in 12 kilometres. With the exception of a few hundred metres of steep downhill about two thirds of the way up, it was pretty much relentlessly uphill from the outskirts of town to a rocky peak at the top. It took just under an hour for the winners to climb (and definitely over an hour for me!)

I’m still not entirely sure what my limiting factor was. There’s no doubt that my legs were burning as we climbed, but I was also breathing very heavily. After about four kilometres, I slowed to walk a particularly steep section – and found, to my surprise, that I didn’t lose any ground to the competitors around me who were still trying to run. After that, I mixed in quite a few short stretches of walking. Not something I’d anticipated or am particularly proud of, but it just seemed like the fastest way to the top. I ended up in 91st place out of about 150 competitors – not quite what I was hoping for, but a good first attempt at the discipline. The Canadian men’s team placed 13th out of 24 teams, led by a fantastic 30th place finish by Kris Swanson. Maria Zambrano led the Canadian women with a 23rd place.

The next day, my teammates and I hiked up Mount Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia (and one that, apparently, all Slovenians “must” climb at some point in their lives). We ended up jogging up (and down) a significant portion of the route, allowing us to finish what would otherwise be quite a long hike in under eight hours and get back to the cars in daylight. Surprisingly, my legs felt absolutely fine – which tells me that it was (lack of) aerobic fitness that was holding me back during the race, not my legs.



The fjords of New Zealand

August 3rd, 2010

A quick plug for a travel story I wrote that ran in yesterday’s New York Times travel section, about a trip Lauren and I took in Fiordland, New Zealand:

SLOWLY but surely, our ship was shrinking.

We were trolling down the middle of a New Zealand fjord, and the captain had asked us to pick a point on one of the towering cliff walls beside us that we believed to be about mast-height. But as we edged closer to shore, perspective morphed, and the point I’d chosen was suddenly three mast-lengths above us.

When we were almost close enough to touch the scale-distorting walls, the captain switched off the engine. A heavy silence fell, lifting gradually to reveal bird calls in the distance, and the faint babble of countless tiny waterfalls trickling off ledges hundreds of feet above us, tripping down slopes blanketed with moss and ferns.

We were in Fiordland, in New Zealand’s southwest corner, a tract of near-virgin wilderness the size of Connecticut with a permanent population — according to the most recent census — of 18. Amply stocked with snowy peaks, alpine lakes and primeval forests, this massive World Heritage Area is most celebrated for the 14 fjords that slash into its coastline, carved by glaciers from erosion-proof granite more than 10,000 years ago… [READ THE REST OF THE STORY]

It was an interesting trip. We went for a four-day hike, and for an overnight cruise on an awesome fjord (as you’ll see if you read the piece!). As die-hard hikers, we expected to love the hike, but we were skeptical about the cruise, since we don’t really like being crammed into small spaces with lots of other people. In the end, the opposite happened: the hike was good, but the cruise was incredible. I’ve never seen anything remotely like the fjord we visited, and kayaking on its surface was mind-blowing. I wish my photography was better able to capture it!


P.S. I guess this post doesn’t really have anything to do with exercise research. But right after we disembarked from the cruise, Lauren and I went for a short run on a gravel path through a forest. On the way back, I tripped over a root and supermanned along the gravel, scraping my whole body (even through my clothes) and cutting a big gash in my chin. So the moral of the story is: don’t run right after a cruise, when you still have “sea legs” (that’s what I’m blaming it on!).

Jungle bound until July 7

June 26th, 2010
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I’m flying out tomorrow morning to Papua New Guinea for a hiking trip along the Kokoda Track — definitely new territory for Lauren and me. A friend at Outside sent me this link to a story about a hike in the same region from a few years ago, which made me excited and a little nervous. While we’ve done some fairly intense hikes in Canada and the Australian outback, this will be a different kind of trip. We know a lot about bear-proofing and alpine passes, but not a lot about leeches and jungle rivers…


For the record, while most Australians who hike this route do so as part of fully outfitted groups (it’s a World War II battle site with significant meaning to Aussies), we’re schlepping our own food and gear. We will have a guide with us, though. The one thing we don’t have (which this bit of research from last week is making me regret) is hiking poles…

Anyway, the point of this post is that it’s astronomically unlikely that I’ll find any Internet between now and July 7 — so check back then as I start sorting through the backlog of cool studies that I have sitting on my desk right now!

[The picture above, from the Outside story I linked to, is by Philipp Engelhorn.]

NYT: hiking the Larapinta Trail in the Australian outback

November 28th, 2009

Another slightly off-topic post… An article describing my recent hike along the Larapinta Trail, a fantastic route through the empty desert west of Alice Springs in Australia’s “Red Centre,” will run in this Sunday’s New York Times travel section. Actually, it’s not that off-topic — for this hike, we had to pay very close attention to factors like hydration (a frequent Sweat Science topic), since there was literally not a drop of water available other than occasional rainwater tanks. Along some sections of the trail, the distance between tanks was a nine- or ten-hour hike at a pretty fast clip. We met some hikers who couldn’t make it that far in a single day, and were thus forced to carry enough water for two full days with them (and that includes cooking water).

Anyway, it was a great hike — a chance to see some unique and inaccessible landscape, and a real test of endurance. The story is online here.