Mt Blanc Expedition

The Travellers Two are on the road again. This summer we were planning to drive from the UK to Rome to shoot an interview with an amazing photographer, and as we looked at the route we saw that we had to drive through the Alps. And the idea emerged to climb Mt Blanc on the way. We reserved 2 days in Chamonix to go up and down the mountain and then we would be on our way to sunny Italy. But as we started doing our research we realised that it’s not as easy as we initially imagined. Training, diet, altitude preparation, equipment, weather, refuge booking and finding a guide were among the things we needed to consider, research and execute.

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After four months of preparation we are on the outskirts of Chamonix in the beautiful and quiet town of Le Tour. We arrived here on Saturday the 23rd and met with people from Peak Powder, who organised guides for us. At 2 am on Sunday we woke up at the back of our Defender and drove to Geneva airport and flew to Rome where we spent 36 hours, interviewing Milton Gendel, eating pizza, pasta and gelato.

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Milton Gendel’s guest book

We came back to Le Tour at 3am, and after few hours of sleep we were on our way up our first mountain. It was not a great success as we left too late and we got caught in a storm at two and a half thousand metres above sea level, so we had to come back down. Le Buet conquered us, but despite the fact that we didn’t reach the top we did some good training in the snow with crampons.

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View of Mt Blanc from Aiguille du Midi

The next day we went up Aiguille du Midi at 3810m to get a taste of the high altitude. Walking up and down the stairs wasn’t as easy as at sea level, but we did a little bit of training there.

The following morning we met our guide Benji and headed to the Italian side of the Alps. That morning we got to the refuge in the foothills of Gran Paradiso. After a short nap we did some more crampon training, using our ice axes, ropes and harnesses, and organised our pack leaving all but the absolutely essential. At 3:20am we were the first out of the refuge heading up the mountain. After 4 hours and 25 minutes of walking on rocks and snow we got to the top. Four other teams passed us on the way but we still made it in a good time.

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Coming down from Gran Paradiso

There were moments when breathing was very tough and the thoughts of doubt came through our minds. “Why are we doing it? It’s not fun at all. It’s just walking, but really hard and up the hill in not so friendly conditions.” But we kept going, with our toes and fingers starting to get numb we reached the summit, took a photo, which we need to get from Benji, as Louise dropped her phone on the top, and headed down as quickly as possible. Slowly we started taking layers off as the morning sun warmed us up and we were getting lower and lower. I asked Benji “Why do people do it?” and he replied “I don’t know if it’s for the climb itself or the feeling after” but as we came down to the refuge by the parking lot and had lunch, he said “I think this is why people do it.”

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Breakfast at the L’Olimpique

As for today, we needed to get some rest before Mt Blanc so we decided to get a room for a couple of nights at l’Olimpique hotel in Le Tour, which was build for the Olympic Games in 1924. At breakfast we got the message that the weather forecast had changed and we have to move our ascent back by a day. So now we have a couple of days of rest, sending emails and recharging batteries for Mt Blanc. We’ll be leaving at dawn on Monday morning hoping to get to the top by sunrise on Tuesday.

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Admiring the view from Aiguille du Midi

As we started telling people about this idea a couple of months ago it was just a blurry thought without a clear vision, but as we started getting closer to the date we thought of doing it for a cause, something that will keep us going when we feel like stopping. We both work for an organisation that helps the extremely poor in the Philippines get themselves out of their current conditions. ICM focuses on education so the participants can “take the fishing rod themselves and fish, rather than feeding them once.” But as ICM trainers go to the poor communities they find many children that are malnourished. And this is the part that we felt that we wanted to highlight through our expedition. ICM gets tons of free anti-malnutrition food from a few organisations in the US but they have to pay for the shipping to the Philippines. We’ve set quite a steep goal but we’re hoping to raise enough funds to deliver half a million meals to the homes of malnourished children. You can partner with us by donating here, and if you would like to find out more about ICM please check out their website.

Of course we are aware that we could have donated the money that we invested in the expedition directly to ICM, stay at home and make videos of very slim children, with heartbreaking violin music in the background, but that’s what we do outside of our holidays anyway.

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Andrew Thomas on Scat Singing

In May 2015, in the first week of our trip across the US, we had a chance to meet one extraordinary man. His name is Andrew Thomas and he is a jazz trumpet player. We met him through his brother Matthew, who Michal went to college with. Matt told us that Andrew is an interesting character, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Andrew charmed us, lured us into his beautiful mind and let us have a glimpse of what he calls his beautiful frustration.

We previously posted an interview with Andrew, but recently we started looking through some files we gathered during our four months journey and came across this video.

February ’16 – Snapshot of life in the Philippines

We recently came back from the Philippines where we were visiting families of the new kids that joined the ICM Choir. We had the chance to visit new communities and take a look at this beautiful country and beautiful people with fresh eyes.

It’s important to remember to stop from time to time, to look up from our mobile phones and take a look at the world around us. Here is a snapshot of life in the Philippines.

The Travellers Two are back

It has been way too long but The Travellers Two are back on the grid. From the US we flew to Hong Kong and got really busy right away. Louise started studying at Hong Kong University and she had to go to an orientation meeting the day we returned. Fighting through jet lag she officially became a music and journalism student.

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Soon after that we started working on a presentation for a charity banquet. For the past few years we have been involved with International Care Ministries; helping people to get out of extreme poverty in the Philippines. Before we started out on our USA expedition we prepared the program for the banquet, but since we were back we decided to make it better, worked on new videos and tweaked scripts, which is the hardest work.

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But it was well worth it. The evening was a great success. We brought the ICM choir from The Philippines and the members had a chance to share their stories.

Also if anyone is interested in the more in-depth aspects of poverty reduction in the Philippines, here is a link to the keynote speech by the ICM chairman David Sutherland.

For some time we’re going to be based in Hong Kong again but there are so many amazing people around, so many stories that need to be told, and places to see. Hong Kong is also a great hub for traveling around Asia so we hope to do so on the future and share our stories here.

The End of the Road

After twenty-one thousand incredible miles, we made it to our 48th state.

What a blessing to be able to have seen so much of this beautiful land; we’ve had countless people tell us that that is something that even few Americans have been able to do.

The last two states for us to visit were Ohio and West Virginia – but as we were on an epic 48 hour drive on our way back to New York to prepare to fly out, we only got a glimpse of these states.

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A rough sketch of our route

But, we took the time to celebrate the 48th state milestone with one of our last on-the-road meals, at a little park in Bethlehem, WV. Thankfully we could enjoy the sunshine before driving through nine hours of torrential rain across Pennsylvania and New Jersey!

In New York City, the end of our journey, we amazingly met some friends who had also just finished an epic journey of their own. Rob and Christine Lilwall cycled from California to New York City on a tandem!

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We both reached our milestones on Thursday – for us 48 states, for them coast to coast – and we both arrived in New York City on Friday. _MG_0576

Enjoying a celebratory drink overlooking the Statue of Liberty, and where so many Europeans first set foot onto these magnificent shores, we were thrilled to be able to share our stories and congratulate each other. And, we look forward to seeing them both back in Hong Kong.

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In Tulsa, just three days before we arrived in New Jersey, we gave the car a tremendous clean out, scrub and hoover – so much dust from the desert! So when we got to NJ, we just had to get it ready to drop it off with the shipping company.

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It is really amazing how much you can fit into a car! Our stuff was spread all over the lawn, garage and our bedroom. And the car looked very ‘naked’ without all of its equipment.

But now everything is almost-neatly packed into bags and boxes; our whole life seems to be a series of packing, unpacking, repacking and re-repacking. I’m thankful for the new Lianne La Havas album that got me through it.

On Friday, we took the Defender to the shipyard to have it inspected and received to clear customs, before it makes its long voyage home to the UK. The next time we see it will be in December.

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It really is remarkable car; although it is very loud, not the most comfortable, and there’s always something that doesn’t quite open or close properly, it drove us thousands and thousands of miles through extreme heat and crazy terrain, and never let us down once.

If only it had air-conditioning…

While the car is on the ship, we are already dreaming of how to prepare it for the next expedition – what we would change, what we would keep the same, how we can make it fit a few more people in so we can share the road with some friends…

Hopefully next summer we will be able to take the car somewhere even more challenging. We have a destination in mind – maybe we will be able to reveal that within the next few months.

But for now, as we look back over the past four months, we also look forward to The Travellers Two returning to Asia and sharing those new stories as the journey continues.

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Four Corners

With Michal having to take a short trip to Poland, I spent a fantastic week in Seattle with dear friends. They were terrific hosts; and my week was full of music, wonderful food and watching my first baseball game.

But as soon as Michal landed, we were back on the road, and as we’re getting close to the end of our trip, we have just accomplished one of the challenges that we set ourselves: to visit the most extreme compass points of the 48 States.

East: Quoddy Head State Park, Maine – 1st May

The perfect place to officially start our trip. With strong winds, freezing temperatures and rugged rocks, it was a chilly start, but the sunrise was just breathtaking and we got our first glimpse into Canadian territory.

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South: Key West, Florida – 22nd May

Three hours from Miami, and only 90 miles from Cuba, Key West is an interesting mix of tourists and free spirits. You can almost taste the spirit of the Carribean! And with the relationship between the USA and Cuba getting warmer,  that Cuban spirit is only going to get stronger!

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North: Lake of The Woods, Minnesota – 17th June

Unfortunately, you can’t actually drive up to the northern tip during the summer without going through Canada. In winter, you can drive right over the frozen lake. So, we drove right up to the southern shore of this stunning lake, and enjoyed a sunset dinner.

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We reached the western tip of the 48 States with our friends from Hong Kong who drove all the way down from Vancouver to join us. It was foggy, and so when we heard deep, loud noises coming from offshore, we weren’t sure if they were ships or whales! With huge cliffs and mysterious caves, the western tip was a lookout for local tribes for centuries passed…_MG_9011

We only have seven states left to visit on the quest to visit all 48… but at the end of the day, it’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters.

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Old Fashioned, Organic, and The Smashing Burrito

Before you read any further, you have to watch this short video… If you have watched the show Portlandia, you know exactly what Portland is all about. If you haven’t… sit back and relax…

We came to Portland to visit a friend, as we were on the way up to Seattle, and he told us to watch this video before we got there.

It turned out to be 100% accurate.

It’s all organic, chilled out, and young people do go there to retire.

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But we started the visit with a smashing burrito! Tomek, who is a partner at the “FUEGO burritos and bowls” food carts business, brought us a couple of his best burritos. Food trucks are one of the Portland staples, and Tomek’s burritos are one of the best! They’re only open for lunch and you can find their locations on their site.

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old-fashioned-short1Tomek is a friend from Poland, but he has lived in Portland for years, before  the hippie-organic movement exploded. He wanted to show us the best that his town has to offer, and so we went on the search for his favourite cocktail, the best “Old Fashioned” in town.

Michal and I are new to the Old Fashioned drink; it’s a simple, yet hard to perfect mixture of Bourbon, Bitters, Orange Rind and Simple Syrup. We sampled these delicious little drinks in bars all over town, and they all had their own twist. And they were made all the more enjoyable by the local bands that were playing here and there.

Mornings were lazy breakfasts from farmers markets or at brunch spots; at the farmers market, we took so many samples that we weren’t particularly hungry for breakfast… but of course, everything’s local, everything’s organic, and everything’s triple the price!

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The organic, vegan, local movement is hard to get used to… Even when Michal asked for some milk at a bar, they apologised and said that they were a vegan bar! A little bit strange…

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Portland is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, and Tomek took us hiking to a spot with amazing views of several peaks. After the previous evening’s bar tour, it was good to get some exercise.

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After a good barbecue, we went to try a couple more Old Fashioned’s at a couple of bars that we couldn’t visit the day before since we didn’t have our passports (If you’re a foreigner visiting Oregon, make sure you bring your passport as ID otherwise they won’t let you in.)

When we came back, we were greeted by a garden on fire! The hot ashes from the grill had fallen onto the wood chips that the landlord recently spread all over the back garden. Had we come back an hour or two later, the house would probably have been gone!

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So after playing firefighters, we spent the rest of the night celebrating the fact that we had been spared and learned our lesson.

We had a wonderful trip – Portland is definitely a fun place. But the health-food hippie culture brought out Michal’s rebellious side – after finding out that the bar we were in was vegan, he asked for a steak…

But if you want eat chicken-with-a-name, sleep in until 11am, and live the 90s dream, Portland is the place to be.

Californication

My perception of California has been, up until now, pretty one sided. California in my mind was Hollywood, Santa Monica Beach, Napa Valley and the Golden-Gate Bridge; in other words; beautiful cities and beautiful people.

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But, after being in the state for a few days, it became clear that The Golden State is one of the USA’s most diverse.

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Within 24 hours, we were at the lowest point in the country, Death Valley (-282 ft), and trekking up through the 48 States’ highest point, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft). They are less than 50 miles away from each other.

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Death Valley – it is easy to see how it earned its name. Just getting up and down the hills to arrive into the valley, our car almost overheated several times; we had to stop every few minutes on the intense climbs at extreme heats just to cool it off!

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Once we were back on the flat, driving along with the windows down, the heat and wind combination was like someone blowing a hair-dryer into our faces. Chapped lips, dry eyes… we were drinking at least a litre of water per hour…

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In our water-guzzling, sun-screen lathering state, I am always amazed at the resourcefulness of animals and plants that have adapted to survive in these incredibly harsh climates. But, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, the landscapes are parched and bare, and the few creatures that do manage to survive here are quiet and still beneath the scorching sun.

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The next morning, we woke in the foothills of Mount Whitney, in the southern Sierra-Nevada, where waterfalls gush from rocky crags, dense, lush vegetation fills every inch of fertile ground, bears, big cats, deer and myriads of birds all live and thrive. What an amazing contrast!

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It became clear pretty quickly that we were not prepared to summit the mountain, and so we took a fantastic hike up to one of the mountain’s many lakes.

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Following the mountains north, we found ourselves in the Sequoia Forest with the most majestic trees I have ever seen. It is interesting that scientists are still only just figuring out the life cycle and optimal living conditions for these trees: they actually never die naturally! They are sometimes toppled in storms, but most often forest fires weaken and eventually eat away at the trunks until they die.

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So in an attempt to protect them, the park stopped all fires; both natural and man-made. But soon, they saw a decline in the number of young trees. Eventually, they realised that small forest fires are the only way the seedpods will dry and be opened, releasing their seeds… So the fires are back… but under the careful watch of Ranger Rick ☺

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Yosemite National Park is breathtaking – literally, when you hike up the hill for hours :). We did one of the most challenging hikes we have attempted – the famous Half Dome.

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Scaling an, at times, 80 degree wall after four hours of steep ascent, was one of the most exhilarating, exhausting moments on our trip so far.

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And the views from the top were just beautiful!

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But as we headed back West, down from the Sierra Nevada range, the effects of the drought that we had been hearing about became devastatingly clear. Empty cattle barns, fields parched gold, dried up lakes…

The only green fields that seemed to be worth the investment were, quite ironically, vineyards.

Now in its fourth year, this catastrophic drought is forcing farmers to either pay water usage fines or leave their fields unplanted. State agriculturalists are getting desperate, and even considering doing a mass move of California crops to Arkansas…

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But one very clear way that we see California’s environment truly benefitting its residents is the countless wind farms across the state. Driving through turbine forests along the highway was quite something!

And, one more thing about California… the traffic… As we drove north, headed up into Portland, it took us five hours to get out of San Francisco onto the freeway… but the Golden Gate Bridge was worth it… just about!

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Now that we only have seven states left to visit, we are starting to be able to pick our favourites. And, with its absolutely incredible diversity, beauty and amazing national parks, California is definitely high on the list.

Wild West

Louise’s 2nd July Concert to kick off the 4th July weekend seemed a little ironic – a Brit wishing Texans Happy Independence Day?

But, music is a universal language and the concert connected superbly with the audience. And since we had given ourselves one week to get to Los Angeles from Austin, as soon as the gig was over, we packed up the car and headed into the night.

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West. Wild West, truly!

We had seen some pretty remote parts of the states; the Badlands in the Dakotas, tiny little towns in Minnesota, never-ending fields of farmland in Missouri and Kansas.

But the vast expanses of desert in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California were something even more incredible.

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The Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas and New Mexico border were our introduction to the rugged, wild terrain that continues across the south of the USA. Rich rocks filled with quartz, mountains lions, cacti and forest, snakes and deer – the mountains held a diversity of life thanks to their abundant water supply.

But as we headed further into the desert, the numbers of species fell and soon we were alone with lizards, birds, and bugs. There is nothing like the quiet, the darkness, the heat, the expanse of the desert.

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In towering sand dunes or vast canyons, with the unforgiving sun and no sign of water, it is easy to see how lost and helpless we are under the forces of nature.

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As we approached one of the world’s most stunning features, the great crack in its crust formed by a formidable earthquake, Grand Canyon, we wanted to have a different experience than we had had before – something more than taking that same photo that everyone has.

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So we started hiking down into the canyon. As soon as you start to descend, you start to understand the sheer size of the place. We walked for hours, and had not even got close to the bottom. One can not easily conquer these wild places.

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One of the most fascinating features of the Wild West is the number of abandoned, or almost-abandoned towns that are scattered across the landscape. We came across several mining towns that had fallen into ruin, with their run-down buildings, scrap cars in yards, and mine shafts – some still with undetonated explosives!

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It is amazing to let your imagination create the stories of those who lived here; why they came, how life was, what finally forced them to leave. And for those who have stayed, how do they possibly survive when there is no-one for miles and nothing to build a life around?

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Amazingly, the post office and the railroads are the veins that keep the life blood flowing; connecting and crisscrossing and keeping these tiny towns alive. In the most remote of towns, high in the mountains or deep in the desert, post boxes line the roads and are a welcome sign of life.

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Perhaps the creepiest place that we came across was while we were off-roading in the Mojave desert. We had turned onto tiny dirt tracks, when we crested a hill and found an old trailer; the windows were gone, and it was covered in plastic sheeting.

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Bullet casings and shotgun shells were strewn everywhere, and our minds immediately jumped to Walter White and Breaking Bad! It was a great hideout… shielded from view and protected from the rear by mountains. So either someone there had a score to settle with the coyotes, or the King of the Hill had something else going on…

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But that night, we found a perfect camp of our own. In the middle of nowhere, peaceful, with the brightest stars we have ever seen. It is easy to see why our ancestors worshiped the moon and the stars; these bright oracles bring light in the midst of darkness, and their beauty is astounding!

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As night fell, the howl of coyotes greeted our ears. We made sure the door was firmly locked that night!

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While the days are hot and bright, the nights are usually dark and cool and peaceful. But when storms come, the lightning is awe-inspiring. Driving towards Las Vegas, the air was thick with the smell of electric charge – it looked like “Sin City” was under attack with fierce vengeance! With lightning all around us, in every direction, piercing through the night sky with great cracks of light, once again we felt the force of nature – knowing we were at its mercy and have no power to stop it.

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It is an amazing feeling to be overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty and wildness of our world. It can be uncomfortable, daunting, truly scary. But it is always an enriching, humbling and inspiring experience.