The Iron Road: Climbing Austria’s First Via Ferrata in St. Anton

It took three gondolas to get to base camp. Then we walked a half hour above the treeline, over and through the snow-covered rocks. At the junction of two trails stood an aluminum signpost, its arrow directing hikers over the side of a cliff. I asked my guide about it. “Oh,” he said. Then he grabbed the metal pole at its base and spun it around, toward the ridge. He picked up a rock and wedged it between the pole and the ground. “The wind always blows it around.” I looked up the ridge. Clouds were once again covering the tops of the peaks. It had been a complete whiteout earlier, and then it had cleared, and then it got cloudy again. Down below it was clear, and I could see the small village in the valley from which I set out that morning.

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Postcard: A First Glimpse of Fall in Colorado’s Aspen Groves

2:30 p.m. MT | Mount Evans Wilderness, Colorado – The clouds crawl across the sky like slow-moving spaceships. The breeze puffs down from the mountains and shakes the leaves on the trees, sending them down to the forest floor. The sun is shining as bright as it did all summer, but there’s a major difference in its intensity today, its warmth very much welcome now that the air has turned crisp. I can hear the sounds of fall under my boot, the dry, brittle leaves crunching like potato chips. We don’t have the rainbow of colors or the slow, unfolding fall you’ll find in places like Upstate New York. A majority of the trees in Colorado stay green all year. But what we do have here is the white-trunked aspens that go from green to florescent yellow in the blink of an eye each September. It’s a small window — a fine line between summer and winter.

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For What It’s Worth: An Update from Wake and Wander

The infamous Moai statues on Easter Island at sunset. 

I’m enjoying the last few days of my summer break before a busy fall kicks off in the wilderness of Jasper this weekend. From there, I’ll head to St. Anton in Austria, and then Chile, which will include a jaunt out to Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. It will be a special, feather-in-the-cap type trip for a number of reasons, both personally and professionally. I’m hoping to get to back over to Africa in October and also hit Hawaii, Mexico City, Curacao, and Grenada before the holidays.

In the meantime, I’m making a little more time to write fiction again. Part of that includes revisiting some of the older ones and seeing if they still speak to me. When I was 24, I had a lady at a bookstore roll her eyes when I told her my then-new short story, Till Death Do Us Part, was six pages. She thought stories should be longer, or something. So, I originally started this story, For What It’s Worth, as a short story about how unimpressed I was with word counts. “Anyone can go on and on and on.” But then once I started writing it, it transformed itself into a story about relationships. It’s probably more interesting that way.

I ended up taking up my word count crusade in another story, Allow Me to Introduce Myself . “I bet I’ve said more in that one page than your friend did in her entire book.” That one is still a little raw but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Anyway, I think For What It’s Worth is a pretty good example of what I’m trying to accomplish. Here it is below:

For What It’s Worth

“Don’t be impressed by all of that,” he said.

“All of what?”

“The length of it all,” he told her.

“But there is a lot of good stuff in there.”

He did not say anything and looked at the girl with a very straight face.

Finally, realizing he was not going to say anything, she asked, “What’s so wrong with it?”

“It bores me.”

The words were harsh on her ears.   Here she thought it had been something to look up to, something to strive for, an example of what it should look like.

Then he said, “Anyone can go on and on and on, my dear.”

“And it means nothing to you?”

“Not in that way.”

Now the girl was very quiet and he asked her, “What did you think I was going to say?”

Oh, what a waste, she thought, what a waste of time this all has been.

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Nature’s Greatest Thrill Ride: Rafting the Zambezi

The first thing I notice when I walk into the shop is the large banner hanging down from the ceiling. It looms above the guide’s head like a campaign banner behind a politician, and to say it was distracting would be an understatement. All the guide has to do to kick off his safety briefing is point his finger up towards it. Everyone’s chin lifts immediately and their eyes turn to saucers as they see the wall of whitewater punching the raft in the face.

“You see those people up there, the ones flying out of the raft?” We all look at the guide. It is impossible not to see them, their arms outstretched and their feet above their heads, the paddles launching up and out. “This is what you’ve come for, right?” Reactions around the room are split. Some smile and nod in excited approval. Others look at their spouses, the wheels turning.

I was not surprised, for I had heard the stories and seen the photos and now I had proof: Here on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls, outfitters hold an unprecedented notion that flipping the raft is more fun that keeping it upright. And here I am in the office about to take part myself, sitting under a banner and listening to a safety briefing that glorified — and guaranteed — whitewater rafting’s worst case scenario. Apparently, this ride was indeed going to be as advertised.

I take the fitting of the lifejacket seriously and climb into the boat. I grab the front seat, knowing my place as a thrill seeker is on the front line. The first few rapids are pretty mellow, and I settle into the melodic scenery, hearing the sounds of the water, looking up at the rocky canyon walls and the birds flying overhead. That mood changes when the guide tells us the next rapid is called The Terminator, and that we should all dig into our positions. I wedge my feet into the creases of the raft and point the paddle downstream, my fist squeezing tight on the hot dog grip. I see the walls of water reeling backwards, the tops frothy, like a cobra with its face fanned out and ready to strike. We hit it head on, and down into the depression we go, the raft dropping nose-first ten, fifteen feet down. The next wave immediately lifts the nose right out of the water, as if the raft was a person standing up suddenly. I drop both hands over the front side of the boat. We crash back down, and I rise to meet the water with my paddle. But the next one’s just as big. We are again nearly vertical, all of us scrambling to lean forward. Paddles are starting to fly, and I tuck my chin to my chest as we drop into the next gully. There is no time to get a paddle to the water before the raft is ripped like a rug from under us and we crash backwards into the rapid.

Read the rest of this story on AskMen.

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Undercover: Pretending to Be a Guide in the Grand Canyon

Last year, a man stood atop a rocky outcropping on a canyon wall near Havasu Falls, looking down at the pool 35 feet below. He had successfully done the jump the previous year, plunging like a pencil into the deep water. Now, he prepared for his encore. He shook the jitters from his knees and placed his feet at the edge. He took a deep breath. But as he threw his arms back to jump, he heard something. Looking down, he saw a man running with his hands crossed over his head, screaming loudly. The man darted out into the middle of the pool — the one that had been over 10 feet deep the previous year — and stood there, knee deep. He looked straight up and waved his arms. “Don’t jump!” he yelled.

That man on the ground, who happened to be a multi-day guide coincidentally passing by with his group, saved our dear friend on the cliff from finding out what it feels like to have his femur go through his throat. It is this example, amongst a sea of them, that illustrates how dangerous a living, breathing ecosystem can be, and how easy it is, even for the experienced, to get into trouble within them. Despite this, the job of guiding people through these places is not always taken so seriously. From an outdoorsman’s perspective, guides are perceived as doing for a living what most do for a hobby, getting paid to hike and bike and camp and raft. But how does that perception translate into reality? Isn’t it just a tick more serious than that?

In the beginning of May, I teamed up with Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) to answer those very questions. Last year, I was a guest on one of its trips to Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon, and I thought going again on the same trip, this time as a guide, would help me to understand not only the reality of a guide’s life, but if and how a guide’s responsibilities change the relationship between the outdoorsman and the outdoors. What does it take to really exceed expectations as a guide? Would the wonder of Havasu Falls be the same, or would the guests blind me to its beauty this time around?

To find out, I assumed the role of a trainee guide on a six-day, five-night trip. There were 12 guests, all of whom were under the impression that I had just come on with the company and that this was my first trip as a guide. This allowed me to get involved but maintain an excuse for any suspicions that might arise from shortcomings in my performance. My duties were to provide support to the two main guides (three of us total). The trip would involve picking up the guests in a 15-passenger van and transporting them the four hours from Scottsdale to the Havasupai trailhead and back; guiding the guests on the 10-mile trail to Havasu Falls and back; building camp (setting up guest tents and a kitchen) and breaking down camp; providing and cooking three meals a day; guiding the guests on daily hikes; providing expert insight and information about the area; and, of course, ensuring the safety of each guest.

Each person paid $2,699 for the trip, so expectations of quality, from the food to the fun facts, were absolutely present. Because of my limited training, I was never put in a position where I was solely responsible for the well-being of the guests. My trip leader and AOA Guide Supervisor, Chris Anderson, is a veteran guide with more than 10 years’ experience in his early 30s. From him, I hoped to learn what being a guide is all about, and what it takes to be a great one.

Read the rest of this story on Gear Patrol.

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