Free climbing the El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

The Native Americans called it To-to-kon oo-lah, the Spanish called it El Capitan. The Captain of the Yosemite National Park. The 900 meters tall granite monolith proudly stands and watches over the surrounding green little giants of the forest. Home to the mighty and elegant Golden Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon, you can see them owning the heights, you can hear them cry in a loud single note, which is sometimes repeated several times in quick succession. From time immemorial, El Capitan sat silent, unconquerable, his vertical face showing no emotions, no defeat from the rain, the wind, the snow. Those who tried to conquer the El Capitan, to reach higher highs on the road to the sun failed silently, unknown and unseen by others, subjects to the mocking of screeching eagles who later cleaned the flesh off their broken bones. But under the attack of the brazen, the determined, the agile, the most interesting man in the world even giants can fall.

el capitan

It took about four hours to get here. Four hours in which I defeated the implacable giant using only my hands and feet. The mighty Eagle is now a silent witness to the coronation of a king. In distance, a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies, disturbed by the fall of the giant, crosses the sky coming towards the fallen one. I thought for eight years of this moment, and I’ve been planning and training for two. I’ve been climbing for twenty years since the age of 11 and this is the peak moment of my life. People said that this couldn’t be done, that it’s too dangerous, that I’m crazy. Sometimes I doubted myself, started to cave in. This has been a great mental battle as much as it has been a physical one. You don’t go only against the vertical rock but against yourself too and you can sometimes be your worst enemy. I used every small weakness of the rock against it and in same cases I had to work with very small holds where only a thumb can fit. The rock was absolutely merciless. I dreamed of this every day since the moment when I decided to do it. You need to have enormous self-control and focus, to not let the pressure get to you in the struggle against gravity and the vertical wall. The slightest move comes after an intense and deliberate thought process and can be the difference between life and death. Time slows down and every small movement becomes eternal.

How do you feel after an achievement like this you might ask. It feels fantastic! But there is no time to linger and to bask in the glory of the momentarily success. Onward to other great adventures!

This is a work of fiction part of the Most Interesting Man in the World collection of short stories loosely inspired from my own life and other real life events. Inspired by the real life of Alex Honnold, the first person to free climb the notorious El Capitan.

Truffle hunting with pygmy ponies in the Ukrainian Carpathians

Danylo has a fast walking pace. I’m not sure if this is his normal walking speed or it’s because he is trying to keep up with his special pet, a white and black colored pygmy pony with blond hair. He looks quite funny to be honest. The fact that the pony is wearing miniature traditional footwear made from leather called opanak is also contributing to his funny image. I wonder if he also wears horseshoes under those opanaks. I ask Danylo why does Pinky the horse is wearing them. “Joke”, “Interesting kind of jokes and name practices here” I think out loudly.
It’s a nice bright day here in the Ukrainian Carpathians. We got up early, as a matter of fact it’s usual for the villagers to get up early, at four in the morning they are up and ready to go to the barn and milk their cows, ate a nice traditional meal consisting of mlyntsi which is a thin pancake filled with meat and cabbage, cheese and a friend egg.

Ukrainian Carpathians

 

To get here at the edge of the forest we followed a dusty and rocky little road through the mountain village, always uphill, we went through yards and wooden gates, it doesn’t seem to be a problem to cross someone’s property here, across a meadow and jumped over a derelict wooden gate. Pinky proved to be quite agile in jumping over that last wooden gate…well it wasn’t that much of a gate anyway, it was more like a skewed log hanging from a side of the fence. All these precarious wooden fences are supposedly to keep the brown bears away and to funnel the herds of sheep that go to graze high up in the mountains during the summer. The air is fresh, the view is spectacular, the green and the shadowy black of the woods blend with lighter colors of the summer-dried grazing pastures and with the stone grey of the higher and emptier peaks.

I hope Pinky knows what he is doing because I haven’t heard about horses or pygmy horses to be truffle detectors, from what I know only pigs and dogs are used in truffle finding. Apparently, truffles smell like the natural sex hormones of the male pig so you might want to give them a nice wash before using them in the fine art of gastronomy. The problem with truffle finding pigs is that they eat too much of them and can cause damage to the fungus when digging. I tested yesterday Pinky’s mushroom detecting and eating abilities when I wasn’t watched by the others but before I say how it went I have to digress a bit and say that Yes! mushrooms are also a type of fungus just like the truffles are. So what did I do? I took a Parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), there are plenty of them here in these parts, which was staying in a bowl in the kitchen, I sneaked to the barn and present it to Pinky. He smelled it a bit, touched it with his mouth but didn’t bite, didn’t eat it, shook his head. Alright, so Pinky is not a Parasol mushroom eater and he wouldn’t make a good Mario player either. What does a pygmy pony do when he detects a truffle? He doesn’t bark like a dog would do nor he would start digging in the ground like a pig. A little dance maybe? Horses are good at little dances, they can be trained to do all sorts of moves. I asked Danylo about this and he responded in a half broken English half Ukrainian mumble.

We walk for a while in the dark and damp forest for three hours. The smell of the terpens from the resin of the coniferous trees is great but there is no find. I’m also starting to smell a rat. I tell Danylo that it’s been enough truffle hunting for today. On the way back we find some yellow and red edible mushrooms so we don’t return from the hunt empty handed after all. I also find out from Danylo about an ukranian strongman named Dmytro Khaladzhi that has the reputation of carrying horses on his back, I didn’t believed him but when we got back home in the village he showed me a video on his old computer. “Tomorrow maybe better day for truffles”, says Danylo, “Yeah, right.” I’m thinking to leave tomorrow from this place but I do enjoy walking through the woods and I didn’t particularly came here for the truffles so yes, there will be a tomorrow…tomorrow, but it will be a tomorrow with a twist because I want to play a joke on Danylo. I will ask to walk Pinky on the leash and pretend that Pinky found a truffle, a nice, big, charcoal-covered-rock-of-a-truffle.

This is a work of fiction part of the Most Interesting Man in the World collection of short stories loosely inspired from my own life and other real life events.

Bagan, City of Gods

The Bagan temples rise up like termite mounds from the surrounding green domes of the Kleinhovia and Shorea Siamensis trees. Some of the temples are still lighted by artificial light, their day earth tone colors of brown and tan are turning to gold during the night through the magic of the reflector lights. You feel like you are among the gods now. The water vapours from the nearby Irrawaddy river turn to mist in the cool air. The low mist gives you the impression that you are above the clouds as you enter the city of gods.

I arrived yesterday in Bagan, took a flight from Yangoon here. From the Nyaung U Airport I took a taxi to a hotel close to the Bagan Archaeological Zone. The plan was to go by elephants, like I already did before in other places in Myanmar, which is a great experience by the way – to get carried by a gentle giant, to have a different perspective on the surroundings, to be able to get closer to the canopy, to smell the leafs, the flowers, to be able to pick the apple of the woods which is another name for the Indian bael fruit. The change of plan occurred when I noticed a brochure for the services of a hot-air balloon company in the hotel lobby. A long, slow day through the city of gods didn’t seemed as exciting now. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of one of the highest temples in Bagan. It’s not enough to just float, to distance yourself in the aether and make the world intangible, the view is spectacular no doubt about it but there are other senses that need to be satisfied besides sight, I need to smell the fresh canopy air, to touch the earthenware temples and stupas, to hear the song of the early birds.

bagan hot-air balloon


It wasn’t easy to convince Duwa to change the usual schedule for his balloon flights and to let me bring a rope on board. “What for?” “To climb down on top of one of the temples”, he thought that I was joking, “You crazy!”. The owner of the balloon company didn’t had to know about this little early morning excursion, I told him. I also asked him if he likes gifts. A nice gift is always a good argument in favor of a cause. Duwa is a reasonable guy, smiles a lot and has an interesting family story, he comes from the Jingpo people who inhabit the hilly northern parts of Myanmar, started working here in Bagan in the 90’s when the Burmese authorities started an ample movement to renovate the decaying temples and to encourage tourism in the area. The Burmese names are fascinating, they have no surname at all and usually consist of only one or two syllables. Duwa said that in the older times people could change their names as they pleased, to reflect a change in their lives, nowadays though, the government is trying to curb this cultural habit.

Luckily, Duwa is a skilled balloonist with many years of experience, there are also favorable conditions in the lack of wind currents and the stillness of the air. The balloon is neutrality buoyant now, Duwa’s agile eyes and senses are always on the lookout for slight changes in altitude, wind, temperature and humidity. I don’t know how much time he is able to maintain this fragile equilibrium so I hurry, I check again if the rope is properly secured on one of the metal frames of the basket, grab the rope with both hands, put one feet over the margin of the basket and then the other, I fall a bit and start moving like a pendulum but I manage to stabilize myself and to catch the rope with my both feet. I slowly make my way down, going parallel to the tower pinnacle of the Mahabodhi Temple. The balloon starts moving a bit and I look upwards to see what’s going on. Duwa’s worried face is looking down. There is the risk that if the balloon gets lower it can crash into the tower. I manage to stabilize myself and reduce the swing of the pendulum by touching the stone of the tower with my extended leg. A few rope steps more and I’m down. I grab with my hand one of the cold circular edges that go around the tower and then put my foot on another, bigger circular edge, it’s important to always have three points of contact when doing these kind of things, pull myself towards the tower, put my other foot down and then let go of the rope. I shout to Duwa that he can now start the burner and pump hot air so he can gain altitude and leave. I have to climb down a little more to find a better place from which I can see the sunrise.
The view is glorious. The slowly rising sun brings golden sparks to the towers of the city of gods. Each day, the towers are silent witnesses to creation and rebirth. Khepri, the god of sunrises conquers the darkness of the night bringing life, warmth, energy and hope.

This is a work of fiction part of the Most Interesting Man in the World collection of short stories loosely inspired from my own life and other real life events.

The Daily Concept App – Launched

Just launched The Daily Concept, a free Android app available for download on Google Play Store. What do you gain by using it? You get to develop your crystallized intelligence by learning a new concept each day from various domains like Science, Philosophy, Psychology, Social Sciences, Arts and so on.

Download link:
The Daily Concept

iOS version coming soon.

Screenshots:

The Daily Concept - animism

The Daily Concept - Now Print!

The Daily Concept - Ohno's Law

Bitcoin: Hindsight and the Law of Accelerated Returns

Did anyone actually followed my advice and bought bitcoins back in December 2013? I hope so because four years ago 1 Bitcoin was < $600 and now it’s < $20000. The ROI on this one is tremendous, it’s more than 3000%.

time to buy bitcoins

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that the most powerful force in the Universe is the compound interest. Well, he didn’t knew about Bitcoin.

My abstract image for Bitcoin is that of a currency that actually represents freedom and privacy, two qualities that a lot of people are willing to  pay a heavy price in order to achieve. This being said, no matter how hard governments and authoritarian powers try to crackdown and to control it its value will only go up. Now, in hindsight, it turns out that the states and governments are starting to bow in the face of Bitcoin and not the other way around (central banks will start in 2018 to hold reserves of cryptocurrencies).

When you buy one Bitcoin you get instant value for it, you get freedom and anonymity,  you get a currency that it’s in limited number, the maximum number of bitcoins that can be mined being somewhere around 21 million (the real number is even smaller because there are reportedly millions of Bitcoins that got lost).  When you get a Dollar you get a fiat currency that it’s not backed up by any reserve of gold and it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Add to this the money multiplier effect that is used by banks to virtually increase the money supply.

Will Bitcoin continue it’s rocketing path up? It’s quite probable because the hype is only starting up, blockchain startups are popping up everywhere and more and more people are aware of cryptocurrencies. We are living very interesting times, the new technology is doing things that were not possible in the past, you can now be among the top 50 richest men in the world and nobody knows who you are (Satoshi Nakamoto), you can carry your considerable wealth with you in a special physical crypto wallet and you can walk the streets being completely unknown.

I’m not sure if the old economic laws are still applicable, a bubble might never come despite what the old dinosaurs in economy are saying,  technology brings change and returns that are increasing exponentially. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist who came up with the Law of Accelerating Returns stipulates that humans are linear in nature and technology is exponential. When you take a human, linear activity like the economy and bind it to a currency that is also bound to an exponential technology you might get very interesting results. We have to wait and see what happens.

This being said, it’s also never bad to be cautious, getting a positive return on your investment is not astrophysics or rocket science, it’s simply ‘buy low and sell high’, if you managed to buy Bitcoins at a low price maybe now it’s the time to reap the harvest, to take the gains and to invest in yourself and in other assets.