The first thing you have to get used to is being led around on a piece of rope. You feel a little like a pet. Then you start enjoying the feeling of putting your life in someone else's capable hands--it takes away a lot of stress. And when you get to 13,000 feet, climbing up a sheer wall of snow and ice, you have no other choice.
Even a beginner can climb a mountain, and, as it turns out, a lot of them do. Exum Guides, a well-respected outfit based in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, has about 5,000 clients each summer, and 1,000 or so do the two-day ascent of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, the most iconic of the range. That's the trek I signed up for--the price is $410 to $800, depending on the route and number of climbers in a group (details are at exumguides.com). You do have to be in reasonably good shape. And the climb is not to be taken lightly. In 2003, a group climbing without a guide was hit by lightning; one climber was killed.
Before the climb, the guides need to know you're prepared. My guide, 34-year-old Nat Patridge, has me practice walking on rocks in mountaineering shoes with sticky soles. I learn to trust my shoes to stick to the rocks and feel a little like Spiderman.
The night before the climb I take a walk at sunset. A hush falls over the valley; the clouds slowly turn pink. The Grand, as it is known, with its multipointed peak, rises in a chain of mountains across the plateau, lakes in front of them bowing before their grandeur. It's hard to imagine that in a day and a half, I'll be standing at the top.
The next morning, the climb begins with a 7-mile hike up the glacial valley called "the Meadows," which should be a slam-dunk except that it involves a 5,000-foot gain of elevation. It's mid-June, the start of climbing season. Temperatures can hit the 70s, but a thick, avalanche-prone layer of snow and ice covers the ground. Nat and I wear shorts, our packs on our backs with ice axes attached. As we gain altitude, we see dots zig-zagging down the mountain face, which turn out to be skiers carving their way down. Fifteen minutes later, we hear a sound like a jet plane. Nat looks up and yells, "Holy s---!," pulling me aside as a mass of ice and snow slides down next to us, exactly where the skiers had descended.
Even a small misstep can be treacherous. As we near the headwall, the steepest section before the base camp where we are to spend the night, Nat lassoes my waist with a rope and ties it quickly. He moves ahead; I follow. When my foot slips, the rope tightens. The snow dislodged by my boot rolls down the wall, becoming a snowball. "Here on the mountain, every action you take you are responsible for," Nat says. "And it has a consequence--if you step in the wrong place, if you plant your ice ax the wrong way."
One more push, and we reach the base before sunset. Our tents have already been set up, and I collapse in one, wondering just how much energy I need to survive the climb. Luckily, Nat replenishes my stores: He's whipped up a gourmet meal of couscous, Alaskan salmon, and veggies--prepacked in zip-lock bags and cooked with hot water.
We awake at 2:30 for the big day--the summit. By the light of our headlamps, we put on crampons (metal spikes that attach to our waterproof boots and allow us to walk on ice and snow), helmets (to guard against falling rocks or ice), and harnesses (to attach to safety lines set up for climbers). At 4 a.m., we start trudging up a steep ridge of stone and snow that leads up the west summit. The wind is howling. I am 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weigh 110 pounds; I wonder if it could blow me off the mountain.
At about 13,200 feet, we stop to rope up for the "technical pitches"--the last 500 or so feet of steep climbing, which is more like traditional rock or ice climbing. I need to squeeze some chocolate energy gel into my mouth and marvel that I am eating chocolate not out of greed but need. The last 100 feet, Nat has forewarned me, are always the hardest. I inch up the last chimney, using a newly learned technique called "stemming"--wedging my body up the crack in the rock. "Fifty feet to go!" he yells down. "Ten more! You can do it!" With the last strength it seems I can muster, I pull myself up the final few feet. It is 9 a.m.
At the summit, clouds race by, occasionally allowing a glimpse of the sea of mountain peaks below. We are at 13,770 feet, above what seems like the rest of the world. This is the best mountain for a beginner, says Nat, because it is doable yet just hard enough to push even those people who are accustomed to challenges. As I raise my arms for a victory picture, I know exactly what he means.
- Bay Fang
PERU, SAY QUESO!
A three-day package puts you and your camera at the legendary Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, on a new photo safari led by the grandson of the man who took the first professional photographs of the area after its rediscovery in 1911. (Just think of the 10-hour flight from Miami as part of your relaxation time.) Guests stay at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in cottages built into the lush hillside (rooms are $469, double occupancy). The all-day safari ($335 a person, details at virtuoso.com) takes in the massive ruins of fortresses constructed of stones so carefully fitted that even today it's impossible to slip a piece of paper between the mortar-free blocks.
- Michelle Andrews
HIDE AND GO BEEP
It is the ultimate treasure hunt. It takes place in a day. And it will give you great stories to recount upon your return home from a mini-getaway.
The name of the game is geocaching--a term that refers to a search for hidden goodies using a GPS (global positioning system) unit. Geocaching got its start in 2000 when a couple of guys in Oregon concealed a cache--a container of some sort filled with goodies--and posted coordinates on the Internet. Since then, the sport has exploded: There are an estimated 200,000 caches in some 200 countries. Resorts, in their never-ending quest for new lures, have added geocaching to the menu.
At the 170-acre Caneel Bay Resort on St. John in the Virgin Islands, there are no TVs or telephones, but guests can borrow a GPS unit and head out on a high-tech treasure hunt. Novices, be not afraid. The hotel reveals which trail to start on, and the unit is programmed to beep when you reach the right coordinates, where you then seek a hidden box. Inside, there's a logbook to sign and trinkets to take--from a shell to a Pokemon card. Nice geocachers also leave a memento of their own. Summer rates range from $350 to $875 a night, double occupancy (caneelbay.com).
Geocaching is slightly more rugged at Tenaya Lodge, 2 miles from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park. Geocachers hike or bike on winding dirt trails to a half-dozen caches tucked away near a waterfall or at the base of a towering pine. The lodge offers summer geocaching packages from April through August,starting at about $320 a room, double occupancy (tenayalodge.com).
Mountain lovers can check out geocaching at Smuggler's Notch, Vt.(smuggs.com), where hunters look for booty among boulders high in Smuggler's Notch Pass. And in Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia, high in the Allegheny Mountains, geocachers ride the ski lift to search for a cache near the mountain's peak. So it looks as if the sport is, er, caching on.
You'll pack two vacations in one at an adventure spa: the virtuous excitement of physical challenge with sublime submission to sensory pleasure.
At the Red Mountain Spa in Utah's Mojave Desert, guests can sign up for a guided hike through "the Wave," an 8-mile twisting canyon whose red sandstone walls look like ocean waves. Then they can unwind at day's end with an Indian-inspired Four Directions spa treatment, which includes a blue-corn and tobacco scrub, cedarwood oil massage, and sweet-grass body wrap ($239 to $469 a person, meals included; redmountainspa.com).
The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa, in Carefree, Ariz., is clustered around a 12 million-year-old pile of boulders, ideal for rock climbing. Guides teach guests to make the 75-foot ascent. Afraid of heights? Try desert night biking on golf trails. Afterward, the nine-oil Raindrop Therapy massage will ease aches and pains. Rooms start at $119 (theboulders.com).
At the New Age Health Spa in Neversink, N.Y., polish up your skin (with a maple sugar compound) and your bird-watching creds (guides lead early-morning forays into the Catskill Forest Preserve to spy on American baldies). Rooms are $254 to $499 (newagehealthspa.com).
High in the Colorado Rockies, an old mining town has been given new life as Dunton Hot Springs, a luxury resort and spa. Guests who sign up for the two-day fly-fishing school ($2,500 for two, duntonhotsprings.com) or a three-night horseback excursion through alpine forests and meadows ($2,450 for two) get the kinks out at one of the resort's three geothermal hot springs. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who reportedly hid out in the town after a bank heist, never knew what they were missing.