Permits now required for Yosemite’s Half Dome

Hiker’s planning on making the trek to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park this summer will have to add a permit to their list of required gear. Earlier this week, the National Park Service announced that permits will now be required on all Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays for all hikers climbing above the subdome. The new guidelines further stipulate that a maximum of 400 permits will be issued on those days, which are when the summit cables are in place.

Hikers can obtain their permits as little as one week in advance of their climb or as far out as four months, but they are not available at the park itself. Instead, they will need to be obtained from the National Recreation Reservation Service for the price of $1.50 which covers the nebulous “processing fee”. Demand is expected to be very high, so those interested in making the hike to the top of the iconic granite dome are encouraged to nab them early.

Backpackers who have already obtained the necessary wilderness permits for Yosemite can add the option to go to the top of Half Dome at the time they pick up their paperwork with out the need to go through the normal reservation process. Rock climbers taking the hard way to the summit are allowed to descend the trail without the need for a permit either. I guess they figure you’ve earned it at that point.

The move to the permitting system came about following four deaths in four years on the trail. It is an attempt to make conditions on the route safer by limiting the amount of traffic. Traditionally, during the busy summer months, as many as 400 people will crowd onto the trail on weekdays alone, and those numbers swell to 800 on a typical weekend, and as high as 1200 on holidays. By limiting the numbers to just 400 a day, not only does the trail become safer, the impact on the environment is reduced as well.

Death of a dive bar: Mike’s Place in Tucson, Arizona

Your first dive bar is like your first love; you never forget it.

When I started college at the University of Arizona in Tucson back in 1989 I discovered Mike’s Place near the corner of Park and University next to campus. It didn’t look like much with its grotty interior, the smell of hot grease wafting from the kitchen, and mix of locals and students. But it did have two things going for it–the bartenders didn’t card much and there was a spacious patio where you could watch the sunset over the Tucson Mountains.

I spent a lot of time on that patio. The Cliffhangers, the U of A rock climbing club of which I was a member, gathered there at least once a week. We’d drink pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon or, if we were feeling flush, Sam Adams, and plan our next expedition.

The food wasn’t too bad if you were an undiscerning 19 year-old with no ability to cook for yourself. I usually ordered the hot wings. The owners claimed they made the hottest in town and while that’s debatable they certainly had some fire in them. My friend Chainsaw worked there and I once challenged him to cook me up a dozen wings I couldn’t eat. To this day I don’t know what the hell he put in them. He hurt me, but I won.

Then there were the nickel beers with Sunday breakfast, the slop bucket of extra PBR that turned Chainsaw off of drinking forever, and the guy who threatened to kill me with a nonexistent gun. Good times! Good times!It’s the patio and people I remember most. Fresh-faced college kids who couldn’t handle their beer got leered at by middle-aged drunks, while bikers guzzled gallons and kept to themselves. And in the midst of it all sat the Cliffhangers, partying late into the warm desert night but always getting up at dawn on Saturday to go climbing on Mt. Lemmon.

Mike’s Place has been gone for years. In the name of “development” the university built a parking garage next to it and a Marriott soon opened up. These blocked the view of the sunset and killed the main reason people gathered there. The bar shut its doors shortly after that.

The corner of Park and University looks different now. All the old places are gone and the buildings have been torn down and replaced with modern, clean, strip-mall suburbia. What used to be a tattered but living neighborhood now looks like just about everywhere else.

Mike’s Place lives on, though. It gave me an appreciation for a great human institution. I’ve been to many dive bars since, and have found that every culture has its equivalent. The chicharias of Peru, the backroom bars of Syria, the men-only drinking dens of India, all have something in common. They’re rough and poorly kept, places that look like nobody gives a damn about them but are truly loved by the regulars. Learning to appreciate dive bars gives you an unexpected passport to the world. Most tourists won’t go drinking in some dirty boozer where nobody speaks English but if you walk inside, grab a beer, and don’t look too closely at the food, people will recognize you for someone who enjoys the good things in life.

So thanks, Mike’s Place. All those sunsets and hot wings and drunken conversations actually helped me become a world traveler. Strange how things work out. Next month I’m off to Addis Ababa and I’ll be trying some of the local tej bet, the Ethiopian equivalent of Mike’s Place. No doubt I’ll get that old feeling of familiarity I’ve experienced in so many other dives. I wonder if I’ll find Chainsaw behind the counter cooking me up some hot wings?

Taking Rock Climbing Lessons in Thailand

Thailand has certainly become a hot tourist destination in recent years. It offers an exotic locale with a little something for everyone. The beautiful beaches along its southern coast are amongst the most popular in the world and Bangkok has many colorful and interesting distractions for those looking to explore Thai culture, while the backpacker crowd can head north to Chang Mai and go trekking in the hills for a completely different experience altogether. And if all of that wasn’t enough, Thailand is also home to some excellent rock climbing, as Steve Backshall discovered in this article for the Times Online.

It seems that Thailand’s west coast, near Krabi, has earned itself a reputation for being one of the best spots in the world to learn to rock climb. The crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches are littered with dozens of limestone karsts, rock towers formed over time by the process of erosion, and these towers offer plenty of great climbing opportunities. The best rock climbers in the world frequent the area, as much for the rock as the sun and sand.

But Backshall, an accomplished climber himself, says that begining climbers will find a lot to love in Thailand as well. There are a plethora of climbing schools in the Railray region of Thailand. In just a few days they can teach anyone the skills needed to take up the sport, and a fraction of what it would cost you elsewhere.

And when you’re done with your daily workouts, you can pamper yourself in the nearby resorts, hanging out on the beach, sipping a fruity drink, and soaking up the sun. Learning to climb has never been so fun, relaxing, or affordable.

Band on the Run: Hiking & Climbing Mont Rigaud, Quebec

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

It’s easy as a musician to suffer from the “everything I do, I do for music” syndrome. (And no, that is not meant as a cheesy reference to a cheesy Bryan Adams song!) What I mean by that is that when the wheels beneath us aren’t turning towards another gig, there’s so much else to do like rehearsing, recording, music business, correspondence, etc. I’m a perfect candidate for this total immersion and I regularly need to be dragged away from the various “must dos” of being an independent artist.

So yesterday, I went hiking on Rigaud Mountain [in French = Mont Rigaud] in Rigaud, Quebec.

Rigaud Mountain is a small (ish) mountain for Quebec – and certainly for Canada in general – but one can’t underestimate the power of a good climb that yields a good view. During the winter, it’s a modest ski hill. In the summer, this mountain is used for rock climbers and hikers. I had no idea.

It was gorgeous.


I have tried to snow board exactly once. My tail bone decided that it would stage a full-scale revolt if I ever tried it again. It still warns me with ghost pains if I even allow my mind to imagine myself as a good snowboarder. I think I’ll leave the descent down slippery hills on equally slippery objects to all you thrill seekers who have a sense of balance.

In fact, half way down this same mountain two years ago, after several hours of unofficial (and gracious) training from my friend who is excellent at this sport, I tore off the snowboard and put it under my behind. I continued down the rest of the hill on the snowboard like it was a toboggan. That was fun, actually. My legs enjoyed the rest!

Since then, I’ve only ever seen this mountaintop from the distance en route to Montreal or to cross the border at Vermont and into New England for various touring stops. Winding through the back roads to find the mountain during the summertime seemed strangely exciting, as though I were reclaiming a space that I had only associated with pain and humiliation. (Well, that’s being harsh; really, it was where I was once again reminded that I’m not that coordinated or “jocky.” I’m okay with that!)

The grassy path up the hill is beautiful and leads you right into the forest that is mostly a bed of red pine needles cushioning every step. The jagged rocks act like an erractic staircase which leads you to the sharp face of the mountain that was entertaining two separate groups of rock climbers. I noticed all the hooks already secured in the flat rock face that jutted up over thirty feet. It’s obviously been well climbed.

I spoke briefly with some of the climbers who were from Montreal (one hour to the east). They explained that this is a great place to train starting climbers because it doesn’t often get over-crowded and it’s easy to “top rope” some of the routes. I nodded like I knew what they were talking about. I am guessing this means that instructors can rope everyone in first without needing to be secured themselves? Let me know if I’m way off the mark here. I’m not much of a rock climber either, as you can tell.

We rounded the mountain and found what appeared to have once been a rock spill. Rocks were piled and frozen as though in mid-cascade between two large sections of the mountain in what could easily have been a gushing river or a large stream. We scaled these rocks easily to the top and found ourselves staring at the horizon on three sides – the Ottawa River, farmland as far as the eye could see, both Ontario and Quebec stretching out eastward and westward.

At this point, Lyndell told me that there was a lookout on the other side worth seeing. We scrambled back down from these lookout points and crossed the centre of the mountain towards the eastern edge. About fifteen minutes later, we were perched on the wooden lookout and photographing the curving highways and waterways that lead directly to the island of Montreal.

Of course, we shared that perch with a Christian cross. It’s very common in Quebec to see lit-up crosses on hillsides or mountainsides. “Mont Rigaud” is no exception. The cross here can be seen for many kilometres. I had just never stood beside it and I am here to testify that it’s huge! Quite an edifice to the belief of a second coming – a second coming that apparently will happen by aircraft and will need this very visible beacon!

Just about an hour later, we were back on the ground at the base of the ski hill again. A short hike, but a beautiful one. During the quiet walk down, I remembered a previously abandoned melody line for a song that I haven’t yet finished. I worked it out across the many descending steps, singing quietly to myself and solving part of the riddle to finishing this song that has been unfinished for over six months. Then, I stayed up until five a.m. that night working it out on my computer.

You see, hiking is good for music!

It loosens up the memory valves in the bell of the brain.

Keeps the blood, and the melodies, flowing.

A Summer Camp with Just for Adult Options

When I was in high school, my camp experience happened because I signed on as kitchen crew help at Camp Laurel in Maine. I didn’t make much money, but I sure had a grand time in between setting tables and working on my biceps by lifting heavy pots and boxes. Plus, I learned to water ski for free during off hours. Back then, it was necessary to talk the camp director into hiring a girl for the job. The second summer I went back by doing laundry-a very sweet deal. It didn’t matter what time I did the laundry. I learned that if I did laundry at night, I could have the next day off. Awesome.

With so many kids growing up into adults with fond memories of summer camp, there are camps angled for adults as well. One of them, Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont, has camp-style experiences for adults meaning when you are at the adult camp, it’s just adults. Kayaking, rock climbing, and disc golf are some of the offerings.

If you are traveling with your family, this is a place where adults can do their activities while kids do theirs. Smuggler’s Notch also has a water park and a variety of things to do throughout the day or night. Some activities are organized, and some are the type where you say from one hour to the next, “What do I feel like doing now?”

If you are looking for a place to have a multi-generational family reunion, this looks like a good option. And, as you can tell from the photograph, this isn’t really a rusic getaway, but more of a resort. Still, there are several hiking and roughing it opportunities.