Cage diving with great white sharks

A few years ago, I went cage diving with great white sharks. The experience was incredible. While living in San Francisco, I wanted to take full advantage of as many activities local to the surroundings like eating fish and chips in the Wharf, kayaking out of Sausalito into the bay with whales and sea lions, sailing a twenty-two foot sloop under the Golden Gate Bridge, and visiting the Farallon Islands, affectionately called the devil’s teeth, for some cage diving with great white sharks. The last was one of the most memorable and hypothermic experiences of my time on the Pacific Ocean.

For context, the Farallon Islands or Farallones if you’re channelling your inner Spaniard are a group of islands that sit about thirty miles west of San Francisco. In the fifties and sixties, it was reported to be a radioactive dump site. Get ready for some three-headed shark encounters. But all that apparently stopped in the seventies when a whistle-blower made it public. Before sailing out to the islands for my planned cage dive, I read Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks. The book was interesting and definitely sets the stage for what you can expect on the islands. Her own story is a little creepy and so self-serving, you can’t help but to strongly dislike the author for her lack of common and rational sense. Nevertheless, a good book to get you in the mood for the great white shark, bone-numbing cold adventure that awaits you at the Farallon Islands.

There are many outfitters who are more than willing to take your money and give you a ride out to the islands so you can put on a wet suit, get inside a fishing cage, and submerge yourself under the 56 degree Pacific Ocean. I tend to find any business is just as good as its people, and people tend to come and go, so check out recent feedback and comments on a sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor before you pick one.

Usually you can rent a wetsuit, fins, etc. from the outfitter, but you might consider obtaining your gear ahead of time if possible. There are no guarantees the suit will fit unless you tried it on ahead of time and there’s no guarantee they’ll have enough when the time comes, unless you want to slide into someone else’s suit after they pissed themselves while in the cage. I recall a guy needing to use two right boots because they couldn’t find any lefties in his size. Same with the goggles. You want a pair that fits well and doesn’t let the water in or it’ll be a frustrating and probably painful experience.

It’s a fairly miserable boat ride out to the rock islands. If you’ve never sailed or boated around San Francisco, the winds are unlike anywhere else, as is the choppy water. The boat leaves around six in the morning so hopefully you skipped breakfast or it’s likely going to end up over the rail. I’d recommend packing a breakfast or CLIF bar to consume when you get to the islands and the up and down of the boat stops. For anyone with sea sickness, load up on the dramamine or skip it altogether. There are other ways to dive with the great whites and not spend almost three hours of your life puking on the rail.

Upon arrival, it’s still a balmy 50 degrees, foggy, with a slight wind coming from who knows which direction. Pack a beanie, waterproof coat and pants, and warm gloves if you plan on spending any time on deck.

As you look out from the boat, you see there is nothing else around but the jagged rock islands, which are in my estimate completely uninhabitable despite knowing from the book that humans could live on at least one of them, the boat under your feet, the people next to you on the boat, and the sharks.

Once the crew begins moving the cage into the water, setting up the air machine (technical term), and requesting their patrons change into their wetsuits, shit got real. The realization of what I signed up for hit home. I’m going into great white shark infested waters inside a fishing crate.

To lighten the mood, the crew pulls out cooking grills and tosses a few dozen burgers and hotdogs on. They also warm up a huge vat of chicken noodle soup. Hot chocolate and coffee is ready to ward off hypothermia for the poor souls emerging from their time in the cage. Make no mistake, the water is freezing cold and you’ll feel it.

Once in and under, the adrenaline kicks in and you realize you need to breathe through your mouth or you’re going to die, and you forget about the cold for a little while.

Even start to enjoy yourself. Hello.

I spent a lot of time looking at nothing. A few jellyfish, lots of really cold, green water, trying not to think about how long nuclear waste actually lasts in any given area and what long term affects this might have on any offspring, and wondering if I’ll actually see a shark up close.

Oh hey, there’s another jellyfish.

Knowing these killers are less than a football field away from you, lurking in the liquid green fuzz is still terrifying. Every shadow is suspect.

Then, bam!

Oh wait, that pic wasn’t actually taken by me, I poached it from a luckier diver.

After emerging from the thirty or forty minutes endured under the teeth-chattering ocean surface with those man-eaters – seen or unseen – one might feel like a complete badass.

The ride back to San Francisco is far better for what it’s worth. Traveling with the wind, it’s faster and smoother. With a belly full of warm soup, an adventure completed, and tiredness setting in, the ride is quiet and fairly quick.

The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge greets us and we’re back on land, oh lovely land, minutes later.

A few tips if you plan to go on your own shark diving adventure. In your duffle bag, bring a formidable plastic bag for storing wet clothes, wetsuit (if you bring your own otherwise they’ll take them from you), and anything else that is wet after your dive. It’ll save soaking your other clothing and your bag.

After you get out of the 56 degree water into the 50 degree air you will be cold. Don’t stay under water if you start shaking inside your wetsuit. Get out immediately and into dry clothing. Drink the hot soup whether you like it or not. At the time I was a vegetarian and all they had was chicken noodle soup. It was steaming hot and I was freezing so I drank it. And it was delicious. I witnessed a guy shake uncontrollably after his dive. According to the captain, once that starts, it’s tough to stop on the boat. He spilled everything he tried to hold to drink to get warm. Once he got out of the wetsuit and into the slightly warmer cabin, the shaking subsided.

There was a woman who brought a small pillow full of popcorn seeds. I had never seen one, but it was incredible. Pop that pillow into the microwave for thirty seconds and it was wonderfully hot for up to ten minutes. Place it on your hands, neck, feet, wherever you need to warm up, and it did the job.

Take lots of pictures and enjoy the journey.


Favorite apps for decluttering

Adventure doesn’t always need to be about travel, cage diving with great white sharks, or trekking to Everest. Recently, I’ve taken on a new exploit spurred by the minimalist movement. Decluttering.

A couple of years ago, I read the New York Times bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. It interested me, and the idea of items sparking joy in order to stay in the house made me smile. I never thought about my stuff sparking joy, but it’s a charming way to think about the things we own. Or, depending on your view, the things that own us. Much of the rest of Kondo’s book I found a little out there. However, I took one big life-changing tip from it: folding clothing sideways so t-shirts look like books inside drawers. This little gem has been super helpful in both creating space and finding folded clothing quickly. Outside of that, I kind of forgot about the book until I came upon a newer book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

In this quick read, the author shares his own experience going from an unhappy, somewhat of a drunk “maximalist” to a happier, healthier minimalist. I can’t say I feel unhappy with the things I own, but I do feel scattered. There is so much vying for our attention including our things, it’s hard to really focus on just one at a time. Even while reading the book, I found myself doing other things trying to stay productive while consuming information, as if reading a book isn’t enough to do at one single time.

Anyway, applying a few of his recommendations, namely leveraging auction and resale apps or websites to sell some of the things that no longer sparked joy, I tried letgo, eBay, and the old standby Craigslist to get rid of stuff. Here’s what I found:

It seemed like all the cool kids were on letgo, so I tried it for myself by posting a ruggedized camera. It was easy to take a picture from the app, post it for sale, pop in a dollar amount and bam, wait for the offers to roll in. But that’s where things got a little iffy. No offers or chats rolled in. I got one message asking if the camera was in good condition, in which I responded promptly. Yes, it is, only used once, never dropped or submerged in water. Then, nothing. She never responded back and no one else bothered. Overall, I think this is a great place to get rid of free stuff or simple, straightforward items quickly, the kind that don’t need a lot of explanation, like an article of clothing, baseball card, or dresser.

eBay worked best for reaching a large audience and shipping smaller, easily packed items. I put the same camera mentioned above on eBay’s auction site and it was bid on in the first seventy-two hours. Unlike letgo, there’s ample amount of space to put in details for the product, it even has a search engine that helps you find your item and makes a suggestion on how much to sell it for based on what’s sold in the recent past. In my opinion, eBay is where you can make the most money, if that’s your goal and you’re willing to take the time and energy to pack your stuff securely, make a trip to the post office, and understand/be comfortable with eBay taking a cut of the sale.

Craigslist worked wonders for me when I lived in Chicago. There are so many people near you in the city, the odds are someone is looking for what you’re selling. Over the years, I sold multiple bikes, a snowboard, even a Kitchen Aid, and had great success. Living on the peninsula in the suburbs outside San Jose, I didn’t quite have the same success. The bicycle I posted has been on the site for many weeks, me faithfully renewing each week, bringing the price down with every passing week without a nibble. And it’s not the price, it’s listed for a little more than half of what I paid for it only four months ago – and it’s been for sale for one of those months. But I have had success with cheaper items that I didn’t want to ship like a couple of skateboards. They were also dirt cheap, but this is a skateboard kinda town.

There are other websites and apps that can help you get rid of the stuff that doesn’t spark joy, of which, I didn’t test out. Going wider than three apps seemed like a maximalist thing to do. But if you’ve got a success story on a different app or website, let’s hear about it in the comments.


Five must haves for trekking in Nepal

Below are five things I was most grateful to have in Nepal. There were dozens of other necessities that I was happy to have along the way, but these stood out most upon reflection.

  1. CLIF bars. When I got sick, they were the only thing I could eat without the risk of getting sicker. They were my breakfast and lunch. For dinner, I’d opt for steaming hot, well-boiled plain soup or French fries when available.
  2. iPhone 7 plus. I know it seems a little counter to trekking culture to have a piece of technology like an iPhone on the trail, but it was my camera and when on airplane mode, the battery was solid even in the freezing temperatures. It was lightweight, convenient to store in a jacket or pants pocket, and access quickly even with frozen fingers. When I happened to have wifi coverage in a village, it was easy enough to connect, send short texts to friends and family to let them know where I was, how things were going, etc. It also had a wealth of other uses, weather and temperature forecasts, access to social media, compass, calculator for currency conversion, a place to capture thoughts or ideas in an instant, and much more.
  3. Moleskine notebook. Most of the time I was too cold to write. I had to bury myself into my sleeping bag and position a flashlight just right so I could see the pen hit the page. Even then, my writing was barely legible because I’d be shivering and shaking so violently. Regardless, I was happy to have a journal, albeit mostly abridged, of my travels, my thoughts and feelings at the time, and descriptions of what happened along the trek.
  4. Antibiotics. Enough said. Word to the wise, do not go to Nepal without them and a lightweight, yet respectable first aid kit.
  5. Hard candy. These came in handy many times on the trek. They helped ease some of the mild altitude sickness and relieved dry mouth that comes with all the dirt along the lower part of the trek. Hard candy was also optimal treats to share with your sherpa, guide, porter, or other trekkers on the path. In addition, I often left a couple of them as small tokens of appreciation to the women who brought me a hot water bag for my sleeping bag.

I’d love to hear from you. If you’ve trekked in the mountains, what was on your must have list?


Revised gear list for trekking the Himalayas

This is an update to the Everest packing list I posted before my trip to Nepal. Looking back, there were items I wished I’d brought or brought more of, and a few things I didn’t use and subsequently gave away to save my porter and me some extra ounces.

Things I didn’t need or need as much of:

  • International plug adapters. I brought three, only needed one with a USB input.
  • Baby wipes. I brought three packs of 42-count, only needed half of a single pack.
  • Paper shower wipes. I brought a dozen, and only needed four for the coldest and highest parts of the hike where there was no running water.
  • Gaiters. Never needed them.
  • Laundry detergent pods. Never needed them. I was able to pay for a three or four, small pieces of clothing to be laundered during certain stops along the trip. Underwear would have been considered rude to give to the Nepalese to wash, so I was glad I brought enough for the whole trip. At lower altitudes, you can also wash and dry underwear yourself and leave it in the sun to dry.
  • Camelback water bottle. I should have tested this out on a few local hikes before bringing it to Nepal. But like a rookie, I tested it out on the trail and hated it. I was so grateful I was able to pick up a trusty Nalgene bottle in Namche Bazaar.
  • Hand and feet warmers. I tried once to keep them in my gloves for a 15,000 foot trek and either the altitude impacted their effectiveness or it was too cold to feel them. They were useless.
  • Rugged camera. I took a single test picture below 12,000 feet, and then kept it packed the rest of the trip. All images were captured by my iPhone 7 plus.
  • Keen sandals. I donated the them to one of the girls who worked in a hut. They were heavy and clunky and unnecessary. My gyms shoes were softer, more comfortable, and warmer in the huts.

Things I used every day or almost every day:

  • Deodorant, chapstick, sunscreen – all of it religiously
  • Toothbrush, floss, and toothpaste – same
  • Body soap, shampoo, and body sponge
  • Moleskin or some kind of blister repair tape
  • Talcum powder surprisingly – reduced moisture in socks and kept feet fresh
  • Backpack (no brainer) and hiking poles – saved a few tumbles
  • All of the jackets I brought – raincoat, down puff, fleece hoody, fleece jacket
  • Beanie and buff – everyday above 13,000 feet
  • Baseball hat – everyday below 12,000 feet
  • Sunglasses – everyday no matter what
  • Jolly ranchers – they were nice to have on a the dusty trail, plus made for nice gifts for the hut staff and breaks with the sherpas or porters

Things I wished I brought or had more of:

  • Airborne chewables instead of EmergenC powder
  • Nail clipper (purchased in Namche)
  • Nail file
  • Pumice stone
  • More moleskin or blister tape

Trekking the Himalayas especially over 16,000 feet is tough and grueling. But it can be made oh so much better with the right gear. Most of my feedback on gear and supplies is completely personal preference. Test all available and reasonable options and do what works for you.


Kathmandu to Namche Bazaar

Namche Bazaar

After a day in Kathmandu, we flew on a single engine, fixed-wing plane into Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, one of the most dangerous in the world. Busy, bustling, and situated at 9,383 feet, it’s the gateway to the Everest region. There is one runway for planes to take off and land. And they only get one shot at either.

Lukla airport runway

The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is not for the faint of heart. Like soaring on the wings of a bird, the aircraft reacts to every bump, gust, and air bubble along the way. Sit on the left side of the plane for the best view of the mountains including an ephemeral glimpse of Everest.

Once safely in Lukla, we started the trek thirty minutes after landing. The journey took about six hours to Monjo. If you didn’t break in your boots sufficiently before arriving in Sargamatha National Park, you’ll know it. This initial leg was where I realized my boots were not tied tight enough. Both feet sustained blisters, which required care for the remaining nineteen days.

The first two to three hours of the trek was mostly down hill. The road was comprised of stone, large rocks, boulders, and zho scat. It was also extremely dusty. Most of the porters wore bandanas or light buffs over their mouths to keep the crap out.

We spent the night in Monjo, and awoke to the sounds of roosters cawing and dogs barking.

The next day we trekked over several suspension bridges. There is no other way around so if you have a fear of heights, you’ll want to close your eyes and hold on. Or keep them open, feel the fear and do it anyway.

This is a shot of the Hillary Bridge, named after Edmund Hillary, downriver.

This is also a shot of the Edmund Bridge. My turn.

After a grueling trek of switchbacks and hot, dusty roads, we reached Namche Bazaar. Hotels, hostels, and rooms were plentiful in Namche, along with stores, restaurants, even a bar that played the old Everest documentary on certain nights. When I arrived in Namche, there was a grand opening for a bona fide The North Face store. (There are a ton of knockoffs, so buyer beware.) Anything you might have forgotten or could need for the trek ahead, you can probably find in Namche. I forgot nail clippers and was able to pick up one up with an intricate Chinese dragon soldered to it for a few bucks.

About an hour before sunset, we did a short but steep climb up seven or eight hundred steps to the Tenzing Norgay statue. From this vantage point you can see Mount Everest in the background with the sun’s golden rays illuminating the summit. Well worth the short excursion.

Most people recommend two nights in Namche for acclimatization. It’s definitely an easy place to hang out and spend time with many wifi-enabled bakeries and cafes.

My guide wanted me to see more of the Everest region, so in the morning, after a quick breakfast of porridge, toast and cheese, we set out for Tashinga. It was a relatively flat, quick trek and I did my acclimatization night there. The climb out of Namche was as beautiful as the climb in.


Finding Everest

Reaching Mount Everest base camp wasn’t a goal I had planned on attaining. Sure, it was on a bucket list. It sat somewhere at the bottom between racing a motorcycle at 200 mph and getting into space. But, everything changed last summer.

For almost a year, I struggled with all kinds of pain; first hip, then back, then leg, then foot, then hip again. It’s as if the pain was trying out different places in my body to find the perfect home, like Little Red Riding Hood. Neck to was too high. Foot was too low. Hip was just right. Once it pulled back the covers and got cozy, it stayed a long while.

At first, I thought I just needed rest, so I stopped running. The pain continued, so I stopped going to the gym. When the pain started waking me up in the middle of the night, I went to to the doctor. They sent me to physical therapy. It didn’t help. It increased the aching and soreness. I went to acupuncture. It almost helped. I went to the chiropractor. She sent me to get an MRI, which came back negative. Several weeks more with chiropractor visits that included pressure points, stretches and back adjustments, I still had pain.

It was then that I decided my body was revolting about something other than my physical activity. Stress has a funny way of manifesting itself, as does depression, sadness, guilt and frustration. Whatever was going on with me, I wanted to find it and fix it. So when the MRI came back negative, I decided to go to Everest. Whatever was ailing me, I believed it could be healed with a twenty-two day solo trip trekking in the Himalayas en route to the highest mountain in the world.

This idea seemed absurd to most people and unnecessarily risky to others. Why go halfway around the world to hike forty miles up hill when you can barely walk? It made no logical sense whatsoever. People thought I was being foolish. I understood their skepticism and concern. But my pain wasn’t logical. There wasn’t anything the doctors could find or point to and say, there. There is your problem and here is your cure. Since nothing on the outside could seem to fix the pain, I felt like I should go inside. I meditated and prayed and listened. Then without warning, I heard a small still voice saying go do something hard, something solitary, something meaningful. Get away from work. Get out of your head. Now get up and go. So I did. I found something hard and solitary and meaningful. Trekking to Everest base camp checked all three boxes even though it was at the bottom of the list. And as luck would have it, I had scraped up enough vacation time to make it work during the optimal Himalayan trekking season. I finalized the trip in early September and flew to Nepal on November 4.

With only two months to train, and I use the word train loosely, I knew it was going to be difficult. But how difficult and for what reasons, I couldn’t have foreseen. The terrain was in one word: unforgiving. If you dare to adventure the same path, go prepared. All in all, I felt I was prepared. Maybe not physically with only two months of preparation, but I had a solid packing list that saved me ample pain and suffering. While there, I became awfully sick. Let’s call it food instability issues, but it was probably some type of food poisoning. And antibiotics, ever grateful I had packed them, eventually knocked it out.

To set my eyes on Mount Everest was exhilarating, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, and it would take a better author to try to explain it. But the destination was only part of the reward. The journey was the other. My hip pain flickered only twice and very early in the trip. The rest of those those twenty-two physically grueling days trekking to and from Kala Patar were hip pain-free. Don’t get me wrong, on the way, I suffered from sunburn, blisters, diarrhea, headaches, altitude sickness, food poisoning, dizziness and dehydration. But not a peep out of my hip. For a year that pain had plagued me. Now under the direst of circumstances, when I would expect it to get first in line with all of the other ailments, it magically healed. I had almost forgotten about it completely until I returned home.

Whether you call it instincts, gut feeling, intuition, still small voice, angels or God, there is a force inside of you that knows what is your next best step. The trek to Everest taught me a lot about different parts of the world, cultures, commitment, perseverance, and myself. The most valuable lesson I took away from the experience, besides always take antibiotics to a third world country and when the CDC recommends rabies shots heed their advice, is to trust yourself.

There’s a biblical proverb that says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” In my experience, we should also listen to our guarded heart so we know what to do when it tells us so.