Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Easter Island at Night

I used to put my camera away not long after the sun went down.  It was a sign that the visible light was gone and it was time to go home and sleep.  Some people come alive at night and for others the night signals an end to something.  And I think deep down inside everyone harbors a slight fear of the dark that is left over from childhood.  But the night also holds the mystery of the unseen.

Tongariki in the evening light.
After my first summer in Antarctica, when the sun didn't set, I missed the darkness.  I thought I missed the darkness a lot after a month or so in the Alaskan summer, but after four months of constant sunlight in Antarctica I almost forgot what the darkness was like.  Then the sun set for the last time and I began to forget what the sunlight felt like.  It was novel to walk outside in late June in Antarctica and look up at the stars at lunchtime.  But eventually that novelty wore off. I knew I had to learn how to take photos in the darkness or I wouldn't take photos at all.  I quickly learned what it took to capture the light of the night--the light that the naked eye cannot see--and deal with the cold temperatures at the same time.

During those dark months I all but perfected capturing that light and now I sometimes don't even think about taking my camera out until the sun has set.  My new desire to capture the night sky has led to many late nights and black circles underneath my eyes.  But what I can capture with my camera at night is worth it.

Long before the wheels of the LAN Flight 843 touched down on the remote runway on Easter Island Lena and I were talking about night photography there.  It took a few days to figure out how to make it happen, but finally our rental car full of camera gear, dinner and white wine was heading out to a group of moai called Tongariki.  This group of 15 moai was far away from the lights of town and situated perfected to catch the evening light and stars.

Along with a number of other tourists we photographed the moai as the sun set on the other side of the island.  Afterwards we waited for the darkness on the lava rock "beach" about a half a mile from the moai.  Once the darkness fully sunk in we decided to head back to Tongariki to get our fill of night shots.  The problem was the park rangers with spotlights making sure people didn't enter the site at night.  We certainly weren't going to vandalize anything, but that surly didn't matter to the rangers.

Without headlamps we headed down the road from where the car was parked and through the squeaky gate onto the grass and solidified lava that made up the viewing area.  We huddled behind chunks of lava every time a spotlight would sweep near us.  I really don't have a clue what would have happened if we were too slow to hide behind the rocks. Not to worry now, we got our shots and are safely back editing the final images.

Soon enough the rangers were satisfied that no one was in the area and drove back to Hanga Roa.  The freedom to walk around and take photos below the Milky Way was wonderful.  At one point I thought I heard growling, but Lena reassured me that it was just the herd of horses that had wondered up to us.

We returned to Hanga Roa for a few hours of sleep and woke at 5am to pick up Thea, our Danish friend, and head back out to Tongariki for sunrise photos.  We were the first people there for almost an hour.  The stars were still shining as the purples and blues had just begun to illuminate the sky. Vans of people began to show up for a delayed, but beautiful sunrise and then as quick as they had appeared everyone left and we were alone again as the sun popped above the hills to illuminate the island and unveil the mystery of the night.

Sunrise above Tongariki
The time-lapse below was the only one I had time to get on the island.  It is just outside of Hanga Roa and consists of 400 images taken over a few hours while trying to sleep on the grass and lava rock under a giant parka next to Lena and a small black stray dog that added quite a bit of warmth.  At 2 a.m. I awoke to a, thankfully, dead camera battery and walked back to a real bed.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Easter Island, Part II

One of the volcanic craters on the island.
Grass and water patterns in the crater.
The ticket I bought for Easter Island was actually the second one that I’ve purchased in the last three years.  I started this blog before I drove to Alaska in spring of 2012 and had big plans of spending a year in South America and that included a few days in Easter Island.  But those plans were thwarted by going to Antarctica.  So finally two years later I made it to Easter Island.

Moai just outside of the town of Hanga Roa
After exploring Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, during our first day there we decided to take a tour to get an idea of the layout of the island and to get some of the history.  Next time (if there is a next time) I go on a tour I’m going to make sure it is in English.  That should have been one of the first questions we asked when it was booked, but somehow the excitement of being in a few place allowed us to overlook that little detail.  Luckily, there was a Danish girl named Thea on the tour that day and she was more than happy to translate for us.  She’d studied in Chile so the Chilean Spanish was no problem for her.  Amusing that a Danish girl was translating from Spanish to English and neither of those were her first language.

Our tour guide for the day.
The tour was a good way to get out and see the island and plan places that we wanted to come back to on our own with time to photograph.  So the next day we rented a car to explore some evening, night and morning light on the other side of the island.  Photos from that will be in the next post.

The people on Easter Island were some of the friendlier people that I’ve met in South America.  I wasn’t sure what to expect in this because Easter Island seems to be caught in a struggle between maintaining its own cultural identity and governance while still being a part of Chile.  Infrastructure such as the modern-ish hospital and schools are only possible because of money from mainland Chile and tourism.  I might be wrong in assuming this, but I bet many of the native people view tourism and being a part of Chile as necessary evils in having the life that they currently live.  But they are also constantly fight to keep the traditional Rapa Nui traditions, language and remote island identity alive.

Like any other small island a sense of relaxation prevailed everywhere.  This was much needed after a long summer of constantly being on the road and many weeks of traveling before settling in Antarctica again for a few months.   We had a good balance of relaxation and making the most of our time to get some fun photos.  What is it about an island that breeds relaxation?

One of the original kneeling moai, before they started making the giant heads. 
Unfinished moai in the quarry. 
I wrote this a few days ago on a flight back to Bozeman.  Flight 42 of 55 this year.   I was sitting next to a nice German lady, who is visiting Yellowstone and the Tetons for the first time.  There happened to be a lot of Germans on that flight and she didn’t know why.  We started talking about travel as I pointed out the Grand Teton and Yellowstone Lake through the plane window.  I explained my recent travels and next few plans she asked if I worked for an airlines or something and how I traveled so much.  I paused for a second and never really came up with a good answer for her.  It made me think of our new Danish friend, Thea, who translated for us in Easter Island.  Lena and I had talked to her a lot about travel.  She was 22 and was just starting college because she said she had “different priorities than many other people in Denmark.”  I guess my answer to this German woman should have been something along the lines of that.  I don’t have excuses and I don’t have major bills and I have a job that allows me a bit more freedom than most which is why most of my horizons lately have been cloudy skies from a small rectangular window.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Easter Island, Part I

All the Spanish that had come back to me when I was in Peru suddenly vanished when I arrived in Chile.  Peruvian Spanish and Chilean Spanish might as well be two different languages.  To make me even more clueless the people in Easter Island even have a bit of a Pacific Island accent.  Imagine an English speaker born Scotland and then moving to Mississippi at age 8 and you get a Chilean Spanish speaker living on Easter Island.  Lucky, many people spoke enough English (more than I expected) to match my Spanish that we were able to get around fairly easily.

I think the word “mysterious” is most commonly used to describe Easter Island.  I agree, but I’m going to try to figure out how to explain the island without using it. 

Easter Island is tiny and most of it can be seen in this photo.

I’ve been curious about Easter Island for most of my life.  I’d see photos of the carved stone heads, called moai, and by very intrigued and filled with wonder by them.  I knew that someday I would see them in person.  After seeing my first moai I felt a mix of joy and disappointment.  Disappointment because I keep wondering “what the hell is this thing?”

After a full day tour in Spanish (translated by our new Danish friend Thea) we learned that most of the moai were carved to commemorate kings of the first tribes on the island.  They were moved from the quarry in a walking fashion by tipping the statue side to side the same way you might move a heavy piece of furniture across your house.  This seems to be the general idea lately on how they were moved.  But if that is how they were moved then why did the need large piles of rocks and long wooden poles to lever them into the original vertical positions on the ahu or stone platforms designed for the moai to stand on.

This is one of the many things that I haven’t quite grasped about Easter Island.  I’m in the middle of looking for a good book to read to help unveil the mystery of this place.  Shit, I did end up using the word “mystery.”  I guess that is unavoidable in such a mysterious place.

Just so that this first post about Easter Island doesn’t get too long I’m going to stop it right here and add a few more teaser photos before I continue.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Peru, Part II

During my last week in Huaraz Lena flew down to join me.  This was her first time to South America and her 6th continent.   I was fully acclimatized, but she had just arrived from sea level so we spent a few days wandering around Huaraz and exploring a new lake called Laguna Llaca at 14,000 feet. 
Glacier terminating in Laguna Llaca at 14,000'
Market in Huaraz
Besides buying food and trying to figure out transport to the trailhead of Pisco, the 18,871 foot mountain that we were planning to climb, one of our main goals was to make a fake alpine club card.  The national park service of Peru--that oversees Huascaran National Park which encompasses the Cordillera Blanca mountain range--continues to come up with absolutely brilliant ideas on how to manage climbers and other visitors.  In 2011 they decided that there are only two ways that they would allow you to climb a mountain: 1. Go with a guide, or 2. Be a member of some sort of alpine club.  This decision came right after they closed one of the glaciers because they decided that it was melting too fast because people were walking on it!   A little bit of ingenuity easily combats this utter stupidity.   Don’t get me started on agencies thinking that they can close the outdoors because it is “unsafe”—that will be a rant for another time, but this one was easy to get around.  We simply made our own alpine club cards that in the end we never ended up having to show the park rangers.  But the hardest part was finding a place in Huaraz with a color printer that actually worked and then finding a place to laminate the cards.  Luckily everything came through just a few minutes before we left town for the trailhead.  Somewhere in a country where nothing seems like it will work—everything works out just fine.
Patterns in the glacial silt near Laguna Llaca.
Camp at Cebollapampa on the way to Pisco
Lena tentatively scoping out the route on Pisco.
Since Lena had never been mountaineering before I had to teach her a little bit about walking in crampons.  But we took one look at the horrendous glacial moraine that we had to cross to get to the lowest glacier and snow and it was an easy decision to show her walking in crampons and self arrest techniques on the dirt instead of the snow rather than walk/scramble/crawl across the moraine more than once.  We climbed down to the bottom of the lateral moraine to try out the trickiest section of the whole climb during the daylight rather than trying it navigate the vertical sand and dirt trail at 3am with headlamps. 

Looking back on Pisco basecampe with Yanapaqcha (the mountain I climbed a week earlier) and Chopi in the background.

After a few minutes of snow school on a grassy slope and a few hours of sleep we started our climb.  Once we finally got to the glacier, after getting lost in the moraine for a bit, we put crampons one and Lena took her first few steps in crampons on real snow and ice.  Just a few hours later we were on the summit of Pisco at 18,871 feet with totally clear skies and one of the best views that I’ve ever had in the Cordillera Blanca.  Sharing that climb with Lena made it even more special.   It ended up being one of my favorite climbs ever.

The view of Alpamayo and Artesonraju from the summit of Pisco.
Chopi from Pisco base camp.
We made our way back to camp, threw our gear on a donkey—I say threw because we were a few hours late coming back and our donkey driver was in a hurry to get back down.  I’ve never seen a Peruvian in such a hurry!  We caught a taxi back to Huaraz and showered and repacked so we could jump on a bus the next morning back to Lima and then on a few flights to Easter Island.

Lena at 18,871 feet on the summit of Pisco.

Easter Island: Not that I had a list of travel destinations, but if I did Easter Island would have been on the top.  The next post or two will be about that journey.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Peru, Part I

Checking out our route on Yanapaqcha
After my first visit to Huaraz, Peru in 2009 I knew I was going to come back.  It was my first real international trip—Canada didn’t count—and I was hooked.  That was only 5 years ago and since then I’ve logged hundreds of flights and thousands of miles flying between all 7 continents. 

Yanapaqcha Basecamp
Huaraz, Peru is a black hole much like Missoula, Montana is.  If you leave you will always come back and if you visit for a few days you will end up staying for much longer.  I’ve met so many people that have arrived in Huaraz with the intention of only staying for a very short time….and I meet them many months later and they usually had no intention of leaving.  So far it is the only place outside of the US that I could see myself living for more than just a few months.  The offer of work there keeps presenting itself, but life keeps getting in the way. 

Organizing gear for the climb.
This was my third time to Huaraz and I was hoping to be on the every other year plan, but last winter in Antarctica messed that up.  This year I was leading a group of students from the University of Montana on the Santa Cruz Trek and a six-day mountaineering course on an 18,000 foot mountain called Yanapaqcha. 

3am alpine start
Huaraz in the jumping off point for any climbing in the Cordillera Blanca range.  This is the mountain range for alpine climbing in the Peruvian Andes.  It provides convenient access to easy 18,000 foot peaks and also to some the of the hardest routes on 20,000 foot peaks on earth.  It might be the only place in the world where you could wake up to a full breakfast at a hotel and be at a 16,000 basecamp by early afternoon.
Our amazing cooks for the mountaineering course.
But this doesn’t mean you take the 8-hour bus from Lima (sea-level) to Huaraz (10,500 feet) in a day and head into the mountains right away.  So to acclimatize we did a couple of day hikes to 14,600 feet around Huaraz before heading out on the trek and mountaineering course.

One of the best things about mountaineering in Peru is that it is cheap and easy to get donkeys to carry your gear!

Just like the first time I climbed Yanapaqcha five years ago it was again in a whiteout with no views from the top.  In fact, I haven’t had a view from the top of a mountain in Peru since that first trip to the Cordillera Blanca. 

The scary, death road that we had to travel on 3 times!
It was slightly lonely after the UM students left because we’d been a solid group for two weeks exploring Peru together and attempting to navigate the Spanish language.