Why, oh, why do I love Belize?

Placencia Travel Blog

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Daniela is the most beautiful Costa Rican girl we met there!

This one is really long entry :) But if you are crazy about jungle, climbing, hiking and pioneering into the Unknown, you might find this one somewhat useful!

Nov 20 � Dec 3. Mount Chirripo � Costa Rican tallest


Dmitrii Demin, my true buddy got a very diverse sample of Costa Rican crown jewels during his 8 day stay there. Canopy adventures, jumping into waterfalls, lazy beach hours, snorkeling, scuba diving, excessive gastronomical pleasures, and never-ending bus rides left us very well acquainted with Pura Vida concept of living.


Saying goodbuy to Dmitrii left me one on one with county�s tallest mountain Cerro Chirripo.

Chirripo trio - Pavel (Russia), James (Canada), Armin (Germany)
My Costa Rican crazy fortnight was finished with my summiting it � twice. I set another personal record climbing the 3,820m peak � one day elevation gain of 2,560m. I did not go for a one day roundtrip and spend a night after summiting in a refuge at 3,350m. Oh, I paid dearly for that! I couldn�t sleep a minute as my scull had been nearly exploding all night long. The 2:30am alarm was such a release. My two new hiking buddies were up for a sunrise ascent. James, an Air Canada pilot fromToronto, and Armin, an engineer from Munchen, seemed to be diehard climbers. They both had climbed another peak next to the refuge a day before, and now were ready to greet the Sun from the rooftop ofCosta Rica. I was more than happy to become their guide so that our trio didn�t waste a minute wondering in the darkness. In a mere hour and a half we reached the summit to see the very first signs of the coming sunrise.
Sunrise view from the rooftop of Costa Rica
An hour later, at 5:30am we saw the Sun appearing from behind a very distant peak � a miraculous view. Thanks to James I have these beautiful pictures from that unforgettable morning.


Starting my �back toBelize� journey I was blessed meeting a team of Russian cinematographers fromSt. Petersburgwho were making a documentary about Russian Costa Rica. I personally was amazed with the amount of Costa Ricans who got undergraduate and graduate degrees in theUSSRin 1970s and 1980s. Also,Costa Ricais now frequented by numerous adventurous Russians attracted to this only North American nation by its �Russians are welcome without visa� policy and relatively cheap airfare.


Three days later, having crossed 3 international borders and having paid $50 to cross Nicaragua (those pobrecitos learnt very well how to squeeze money from moving targets like me !), I reached the shores of southern Belize.

With Russian cinematographers
My heart was filled with indescribable pleasure of getting back home. Southern Belize, still overlooked by most tourists who flood northern part of this tiny country, is a true Caribbean and Central American gem for all who appreciate miles of deserted beaches (Placencia), pristine jungle and idyllic rural communities of pure Maya (San Antonio and vicinities), hiking in wilderness (Maya Mountains), and unbelievable racial and cultural mix of Caribbean towns (Punta Gorda).


Dec 4 � Dec 17. Quest for Doyle�s Delight


My third trip to Belizewas my third attempt to find my way to Doyle�s Delight, the country�s tallest peak.

Boat to Placencia, Belize
Nameless until 1980s and not known to the general public because of charismatic, but 13ft lower, Victoria Peak, the mountain is still hidden in the very heart of Maya Mountains right on the border of Toledo and Cayo districts. Its summit coordinates are N 16°29â��39.3â��  W 89°02â��45.8â��. But back in early December I only knew its very approximate coordinates of N 16°30â�� and W 89°03â�� that would only give me a rough idea where to look for the right summit (a circle, one mile in diameter). I didnâ��t have any map and I didnâ��t know anyone who had ever reached the summit from the south. The general notion still is that Doyleâ��s Delight is very hard to approach fromToledo side due to the innumerable canyons and ridges to cross. That is why all the expeditions that I know of only attempted the summit from the north.
1979 British map - our only planning resource
The problem with the northern approach is that there are no local communities in the vast area of Forest Preserves. The closest village would be 70-80km as crow flies. Arranging an expedition from there would mean an exorbitant monetary expense (special transportation, professional guides and security, etc.) and unrealistic time span (months to arrange and 8-10 days for the actual climb).


My secret was that I KNEW THE NAME of the man who would dare to pioneer such an attempt with me. Alfredo Sho, a Mopan Maya residing inSan Jose, a remote indigenous village in southernToledo. During my second visit toBelizeback in early November I was lucky to meet Bruno Kuppinger, one of the key people in BTIA (Belize Tourism Industry Association) forToledodistrict. He works with Maya guides to set up jungle tours for his clients. Bruno recommended Alfredo and that advice proved to be the Ariadna thread in my multidimensional quest for the right guide.

Alfredo Sho. The soul of Maya Mountains


OK, I knew who to look for, I got my Garmin GPS (myChicagogang presented it on my take off fromWindyCity) and my Iridium satellite phone (a precious gift from Alexander, my cousin) � all of that made me feel very comfortable about my prospects to reach the rooftop ofBelize. I stayed in Punta Gorda for several days to get my thoughts in order and get into the right mode. I chose Nature�s Way Guesthouse as my base. I met its owner, Chet, back in November. Originally from the States, Chet had lived in Punta Gorda for well over three decades and became an integral part of local community, particularly of its Mayan part. He shared with me his invaluable insights on Mayan psyche, helped me to get in touch with guides from three different villages, and gave me a very realistic and inspiring feedback regarding my Doyle�s Delight plans.

Punta Gorda Central Plaza


The day before I was going to start my adventure I received an e-mail from myChicagobuddy, Igor. To say that I was surprised reading his message is to say nothing. I was shocked! Igor, whose only wilderness expedition experience was limited to two day canoe trips along the banks of some Midwestern rivers richly dotted with fully equipped campsites, wanted to join me for this pioneering trip. My first reaction was �Man, you don�t even have a tent or a backpack!� But then I thought �Why not! He asks for that, let him get into it!� I waited for another day and that was enough for Igor to get himself loaded with all sorts of expedition gear in a local REI outlet, to buy tickets (seven hours before the flight) and get his butt on the line just in time for our adventure.

Igor's wilderness debut


Sunday, December 9, we took an 8am bus bringing us halfway between Punta Gorda andSan Jose. Two rides later we finally reached the very center ofSan Josemaking it before noon, which was an outstanding achievement and luck for a very slow Sunday morning when everybody in the wholeToledodistrict (except for local Chinese population) goes to the church. Almost immediately we met Alfredo�s son who brought his father to meet us. Alfredo knew that we were coming � Bruno called him several days ago. Alfredo in his early 50s while being an average height projects an immense power and looks like a mountain himself. He didn�t speak much, strictly business. Within minutes we were done agreeing on all the essentials.


Igor and I were going to have two guides � Alfredo Sho and his long-term guiding companion Emilino Cho.

Emilino Cho and Alfredo Sho - the Duo of Success
We were going to take a major detour that would let us avoid all the deep canyons and steep ridges. Instead we would make a new trail in a long valley approaching the mountain from south-west. The final approach would only have 3 or 4 ridges and canyons to cross� At least that was what we saw on Alfredo�s map. Since none of the guides ever attempted going that way, half of the 40+km route (one-way) was going to be cutting through pure wilderness.


We all agreed that 6 days seemed to be enough for that trip. That sounded very promising, as the whole trek when established could be done in 5 days meaning a potential inflow of US tourists (those with one week vacation) wishing to reach Belizian highest point.


After a short meeting with Emilino, which proved to be a very pleasant event � always smiling and easy-going Emilino was like a perfect match for his serious and mostly silent companion, Igor and I did a final check of our backpacks.

San Jose. Idyllic community
The most exciting item was our food � compared with Emilino�s and Alfredo�s Spartan menu ours represented almost a fine dining diversity:

1. High energy snacks to survive the 10-12 hour hikes, i.e. 24 regular-size Snickers Almond, 4 king-size Snickers, 10 dark chocolate Milky Way.

2. Instant food: 7 packs of Ramen instant noodles, 5 packs of chicken soup, and 2 packs of instant Oatmeal (each pack promising 7 servings, later on I figured we could hardly squeeze 4 out of it).

3. Canned food: 1 two-pound beef stew, 2 cans of Macaroni with beef, 3 cans of Danish ham, 1 can of salmon, 1 can of turkey.

4. Dessert: 2 jars of fruit jam (one pound each)


Mopan Maya guest house
Beverages: 3 packs of tea, 1 can of cocoa with sugar

6. 1.3 kg of bread (the one you use for toasts)

7. Useless (as it proved later) food: 3 packs of powdered coconut milk, 4 packs of dry sauces, 15 tiny packs of SugarLow.


Spending a night in a Mayan village was almost a paradise-like experience � starry and moonless night, spacious setting ofSan Josewith each family occupying a hilltop (no fences, no doorlocks!), pristine lawns with myriads of lights of some nocturnal insects, all kinds of sounds and voices of night-time jungle. 6:20am Monday morning we took off for what happened to be a non-stop push for seven days in a row�


Monday was a piece of cake � a steady and very moderate ascent to the plateau.

Natural raingear
We gained 500m having walked 22km. By 5pm we all reached Union Camp just 3km east of Guatemalan border. Igor seemed to be doing great and his humorous attitude to anything proved to be a real treasure during the whole trip. Monday was the only rainy day of our week-long expedition. It rained half day though leaving us totally wet but nevertheless happy and smiling.


That day also brought a realization of what kind of potential hazards we are getting into. There was a moment when Igor spotted a snake. He was 5 meters behind me. I didn�t pay much attention to that just wondering why it took them so long to look at the animal � they only caught up with Emilino and I ten minutes later. It appeared that somehow I didn�t notice the jumping viper and � stepped on it pressing its short and muscular body into the mud.

First night
A two feet long snake was sitting there with its mouth wide open and ready to attack whoever was following me. Alfredo explained that the snakes� bite if not cured kills an adult in two days.


Monday night Igor and I were filtering water for the next day when Igor spotted another snake. I looked where he pointed. 2 meters away from us there was something that looked like a 5ft-long and thick liana. It was right on a trail leading from the river to our camp. I laughed at Igor thinking that the jumping viper incident made him see snakes everywhere. I was going to kick the liana to show him how wrong he was. That very moment Alfredo showed up from the camp side walking toward us on the trail � he heard Igor�s exclamation. A second later the �liana� curled into a living spring and jumped into the river running away from humans.

The Cave. Here we started our quest into the Unknown
I stood there frozen � as if someone took a blindfold off my eyes. I immediately could see the beautiful mosaic on the snake�s back � how could I miss that looking at the �liana�?! �Yellow jaw, if it bites you, with no treatment you die in 6 hours� � Alfredo was laconic as always.


Tuesday, December 11, became a real moment of truth for our little team. The Monday success made us, well�, overconfident about our ability to cover the remaining 50% of the distance to Doyle�s Delight. We started late � at 7:30am � and three hours later we reached the point where I had to pull my GPS and our guides - their 27-inch machetes. During the next almost 7 hours we only covered less than 4km � cutting through the virgin selva was THE challenge of our expedition.

Man! I'm losing my faith!!!
There were spots where one could only see 2-3 meters ahead (under mid-afternoon Sun)! Emilino was cutting our way through the green wall and I was right behind him adjusting his direction with my Garmin set on Doyle�s Delight summit. Alfredo was making sure that the trail was properly marked � we heard his machete a hundred meters behind us. Igor was following Alfredo.


� And we hardly made 50% of what we had planned for that day. While setting our second camp we had a chance to get everyone on the same page and to become realistic about our prospects to reach the summit. Our average speed of 0.6km/h meant that we still got at least 20 hours of non-stop trail making in the heart ofBelizejungle. 20 hours was two full days � Wednesday and Thursday. It became obvious: no way were we making the round trip in 6 days.

One of the clearest spots in the jungle - you can see far!
Even 7 full days seemed like a challenge. Alfredo just nodded acknowledging it. Both Emilino and Alfredo seemed to be cool with such an extension of our adventure � they both wanted to make it and didn�t hide their excitement about pioneering the first commercial route to Doyle�s Delight. I exhaled with ease � we all seemed to be on the same page.


Wednesday morning we tried a new tactic � Emilino and I started early � at 6:20am. Alfredo and Igor followed us with a two and half hour lag. Fighting the rough terrain and thick vegetation took its tall on Igor. Wednesday tactic would allow him walking in his own rhythm and not wasting his energy on waiting for us to make the trail. Another benefit for all of us would be to see how fast Alfredo and Igor could cover the distance on a freshly made trail.

Emilino, the kind heart of our team
It appeared that they were only 20% faster than us making the 6.3km in 8hrs.


Wednesday afternoon I had a chance to experience what Emilino lived with for the second day in a row. I took his machete and started crushing whatever was on my way. I learned fast that marking a trail has nothing to do with logging � I wasted tons of energy and a good half an hour �marking� the distance that Emilino would have marked in 5-10 minutes. Moreover, I totally lost the sense of direction. The peak of my shame was the moment when machete flew from my hand and landed meters away from me. Emilino was just observing me; he didn�t express any emotion, not even a smile! As if nothing happened. I experienced a major relief when he asked for his machete.


I was wondering how he managed to keep cutting through the jungle for hours and hours non-stop! It seemed that the secret was in the way he was using the momentum of his upper body.

What a blessing - all those precious gifts from the jungle
Emilino almost never used just his arm � all the energy for a machete strike was generated by a slight but very powerful spin in his upper body along his vertical axis. But the real magic was the way he managed to keep the general direction � even in the thickest parts I only corrected him once every 10 minutes or so.


By early afternoon we finally reached the southern slopes ofMayaMountainsand started going up and down canyon walls. My Garmin was already having hard time receiving satellite signal even in the valley under the thick jungle. It proved virtually useless in canyons. Moreover, for some reason, eastern slopes of Mayan mountains would become a �blind� spot for my GPS between 2pm and 4pm. The reception was so poor that we could only use the device as a compass for those two hours on Wednesday.

Doyle's Delight is behind that mountain
As a result we started to �slide� eastward instead of going north-east and added an hour or two (and a couple of canyons) to our original plan. The outcome of our Wednesday effort was something like an expected disappointment � we only got to the spot that we had hoped to reach by the end of Tuesday. And our average speed was 0.6km/h � exactly what we hoped for. None of us could guess how thick the vegetation will be on the much higher ridges of Mountain Divide. We could only hope that we wouldn�t further slow down on the steep and wet slopes of the canyons during our summit day.


And we didn�t! Thursday was a perfect sunny day. Mountain Divide ridges were covered with very tall forest and the soil was pleasantly dry and easy to walk on � that was like a welcoming blessing from the spirit of Doyle�s Delight.

Many rivers to cross...
Emilino and I were moving fast. From 6am till 8:30am we were following one of the ridges not hitting a single canyon. Then the ridge started to take us away from Doyle�s Delight and we had to go across several ridges. Deeper parts of canyons proved to be a nightmare for a hiker with a loaded expedition backpack. The vegetation and the soil would change dramatically compared with the ridge top. I was literally sliding on my butt in some spots wondering how it would be possible to make our way back.


Three canyons and an hour and half later we finally reached one of the Mountain Divide ridges that seemed to carry us right on our target. At around 11:30am we spotted a massive and tall mountain on our right � across a huge well over 100m deep canyon. Emilino and I were both tired and excited about the proximity of the mysterious mountain (my GPS showed that we were a mere 900m as crow flies from Doyle�s Delight summit).

Doyle's Delight summit. Helicopter landing spot
I nearly exclaimed �That must be it!� but, thank God, I listened to my inner voice that time. My inner Pavel took my emotional and hopeful guess with a pinch of salt. Down into the canyon it became clear that my inner Pavel was right � the actual Doyle�s Delight was somewhere behind that beautiful mountain. Crossing that canyon took us an hour and half� to make what looked like a 300m straight line on a map.


Descending into the next canyon made us face very different vegetation � much thicker � as well as much wetter soil. That�s where I had to grasp to all sorts of roots and trunks not to slip into a muddy roller coaster down to the river. It was getting late � past 2pm and we were still crawling up a slippery slope only praying that this one would be the slope of Doyle�s Delight.

Three months of preparations just to experience that moment!
I was constantly checking my altimeter � we seemed to be on the right track as we were hitting above 1050m � no other mountain but Doyle�s Delight would reach that high. The very thick vegetation didn�t let us see how close we were to the ridge. At 1,100m above sea level Emilino took a break and started his late lunch. I was patiently observing him realizing that we were sitting just 15-20m below what was the summit of Doyle�s Delight. I could easily tell that the guy was calming down to make sure he was ready to face his successJ and to �shake hands� with the spirit of his country�s tallest mountain.
Our winning team: Alfredo, Igor, Emilino, Pavel
My patience ended when I noticed a front of thick clouds approaching us from the west. I rushed up the slope asking theProvidence to postpone any possible rain until I got a clear view from the rooftop ofBelize.


Doyle�s Delight summit is a vast area nearly 300m long and a good 100m wide. It took us 10min to figure out what part of the mountain was the highest point. Wondering among the trees Emilino noticed a trail leading eastward. We followed it emerging on the edge of a helicopter landing spot. Doyle�s Delight summit is now totally free from trees and bushes, which is great for the views and for enjoying sunsets and sunrises. But it might be a little disappointing once you imagine that a large chunk (a 100m wide circle) of a unique microcosm was completely destroyed. Doyle�s Delight is famous among biologists and botanists due to its unique microclimate and flora � very different from the flora of any other neighboring mountain.

Doyle's Delight sunset


I experienced an indescribable satisfaction � my third attempt to reach the summit ofBelizewas a true success. Emilino and Alfredo, though not showing much, were very excited, no doubt! Later on, they both revealed that before summiting they had had dreams, which they considered to be good signs. Alfredo�s dream was about him collecting an abundant crop of fruits from all sorts of fruit trees around him. Emilino found himself picking up dollar bills from the floor in his house and continuing out in the mud outside. There were so many 50 dollar bills out there that another villager joined Emilino in picking up those.


I was curious about Igor�s reaction. He was clearly glad to make it to the summit without asking our guides for any extra help (like sharing his load with them � what Alfredo offered a day prior).

Doyle's Delight sunrise
Though I could tell that emotionally he was nowhere near my level of happiness! My 3 months of planning and searching for the right people, thinking through possible approaches, three visits to Belize versus his one day of shopping and a 30 min briefing on the expected route just before we took off! And maybe his taking it easy made his success such a natural thing. Igor, a big city intellectual, had accomplished something that would definitely be a matter of exceptional proud even for an experienced hiker. Deep inside I was giving him many rounds of applause.


Camping onBelizetallest summit, watching sunset and sunrise felt like the best possible reward for our 4 day long quest for Doyle�s Delight.


Going back was also an adventure of its own sort.

The official marker of Doyle's Delight summit
There were times when even Alfredo and Emilino would lose the sight of the trail and we would wonder in selva looking for it. Our average speed was only 30% faster than when we were making the trail on our way up.


And here�s our performance on our way back� Friday, December 14, we started at 7:40am, hiked for nine and a half hours making about 8km at an average speed of 0.8km/h. Saturday, December 15, we had an earlier start at 6:30am as our Friday performance made us doubt our chances to reach Union Camp within a day. Saturday became our longest day � we hiked for over 11 hours covering something like 12.5km at 1.1km/h. By Saturday night almost all of our food was gone and we could not afford spending any longer in the jungle. All of that made us work hard to get back by Sunday night.

When exhausted - take a break here
I was almost running back reachingSan Josewithin a little over nine hours. But, man, I was tired! Hiking downhill with a much lighter backpack I was only able to slightly improve my Monday performance. Back then I did the 22km in ten and half hours at 2km/h (going uphill with a fully loaded backpack!), whereas my Sunday hike took nine and quarter hours at 2.3km/h.


Over the seven days we hiked 84km with loaded expedition packs. That represents 68 hours of moving. Oh, and I forgot to mention what kind of footwear we wore. All sorts of hiking and trekking shoes would be absolutely useless there. We started to laugh at our branded stuff as soon as we hit the very first mud on the edge ofSan Jose. We were wearing rubber boots all week long!


Getting there:


Take a bus (7 hrs) or a local plane (1hr) fromBelize Cityto Punta Gorda.

Alfredo and Emilino in the summit camp
There is one bus from Punta Gorda toSan Josethat goes at 11:30am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Or you can get a cab for $75. The most viable option is to take aBelize Citybus to the point (14 miles from PG) where an unpaved road takes off towardsSan Antonio, a majorMayanVillage. From there you can catch a ride with any pick up truck going toSan Antonioto another road crossing (5 miles from the highway). That�s whereSan Joseroad starts � it is still 9 miles away from the village and you are better off to start hiking and trying to flag down any vehicle going toSan Jose. Locals are very helpful and most would give you a free ride, no problem.


San Jose� Doyle�s Delight � San Josehike will take 6 full days if you plan to camp on the summit. If you only have 5 days you still can do it, but it will be a major stretch.

Resting on a ridge, looking up...
Try to get to the cave 4.2km beyond Union Camp on the first day. That is 25km hike but it is still doable â�� the already existing trail is navigable and easy to hike. On the second day try reaching the northbound ridge â�� it is at least 11km hike along our fresh trail mostly in virgin selva.  Setting your last camp on that ridge 5-6 km from the summit will allow you reaching it on the third day. It will be a long day, though, as you would have to hit the summit by noon and return by 6pm. The good thing is that you donâ��t have to carry all your gear â�� just a daypack.






Alfredo Sho, Emilino Sho + 501 702-2972

That is the only community telephone forSan Josevillage.

Julia Andreevna Nikerina aka Jul'ka
Call between 8am and 6pm Central Standard Time (Chicagotime zone) and ask for either Alfredo or Emilino. Alfredo has a General Guiding License and can lead jungle expeditions. Emilino gets Side Guiding License and would not be able to lead an expedition without a General Guide. Go with at least two guides. Even if you have GPS loaded with Doyle�s Delight trek, a satellite phone, and a nice insurance, going without local guides might be suicidal.


Bruno Kuppinger + 501 600-8773, suncreek@hughes.net

He is a great source of information on southernBelize. Bruno can help you getting forest preserve entry permits necessary for climbing Doyle�s Delight fromToledooffice of Belize Forestry Department. His travel agency can arrange that expedition (as well as many other jungle tours and expeditions) for those who don�t have enough time to do it themselves.

Emilino and I summited at 2:40pm on December 13, 2007


Chet (the owner of Nature�s Way Guesthouse) + 501 702-2119

Chet is a tremendous help in getting you in touch with great people in local Mayan communities. His family�s guesthouse is a wonderful and very convenient base for exploring magnificent Punta Gorda, spending a day or two before and after the expedition. He will also let you store your luggage while you are in the jungle.


December 18 � present. She is back! J


And then� I was back to Mexico, ha-ha-ha-ha!!! J To meet Julia, my sweetheart, who flew to Cancun fromRiga.

Alfredo and Igor
From the wild jungle of southernBelize to the uber-touristy Cancun � I cannot think of more distant extremes in the wholeNorth America!


So, we are back toBelizegetting ready to dive the Blue Hole. And� why do I loveBelizeso much? There was a song in 1930�s �I love Parise�. These days I�m singing it to myself replacingPariswithBelize�


I loveBelizeevery moment

Every moment of the year!

I loveBelize,

Why, oh, why do I loveBelize?

Because my Love is near J

christiangrinder says:
Amazing, I looking info about Doyle's Delight many many time ago without good results.. but! your blog is an huge help for me. THANKS A LOT
Posted on: Feb 29, 2008
travelman727 says:
Pavel, you say it better than me! There's a reason Belize is my favorite Western Hemisphere country... and your blog beautifully shows several of the reason why :-D
Posted on: Dec 29, 2007
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Doyle's Delight summit. Helicopte…
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Three months of preparations just…
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Our winning team: Alfredo, Igor, …
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Doyle's Delight sunset
Doyles Delight sunrise
Doyle's Delight sunrise
The official marker of Doyles Del…
The official marker of Doyle's De…
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When exhausted - take a break here
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Alfredo and Emilino in the summit…
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Resting on a ridge, looking up...
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Julia Andreevna Nikerina aka Jul'ka
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Emilino and I summited at 2:40pm …
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photo by: travelman727