Monday, October 31, 2011

Hanging by 1/4"

We woke up with the sun this morning to go ice-climbing. We discovered soon enough that when they said "All levels welcome," they meant "All levels are welcome to join us on an intense, strenuous, full-day ice-climbing event."

We arrived at the meeting location at 7:45am, and were outfitted from head to toe with new gear: beanies, waterproof jackets and pants, two pairs of (warm) woolen mittens, socks, plastic boots and - the things Jeff had been waiting for - crampons.

We boarded a bus with our 3 guides, two guys from the States, and two girls from Korea, and made our way to the glacier.

It was a long and surprising path even getting onto the glacier - we began our hike in a rainforest, then continued onto a rocky flood plain with a glacial river running through it. We followed the river back to its source - or at least, to the huge wall of ice its source was hidden in. That's where things got intense.

With further instruction, we changed out of our own hiking boots into the heavy-duty boots provided by the company - they doubled the size of my foot, tripled the weight, had two sets of laces, and looked as if they wouldn't be phased a bit if an avalanche came down on top of them (regardless of what happened to their owner...)

Then came the crampons - metal claws we strapped onto our boots that dug their way into the ice at every step. The way the tiny, bent metal claws protruded from all sides of the boot, I felt like a centipede making its way across the hills of ice.

Thus weighed down but with a solid grip beneath our feet, we stepped onto the glacier and into a totally different world.

There was only ice, as far as you could see. Small gravel-like pieces on the ground were transformed into diamonds by the sunlight glinting off of them. Ice hills rose in front of us, a sign of things to come. Sheer walls rose up in some places, and small rivers cut their way through the softer top-layer of the glacier to feed the rushing, larger river gushing beneath. In some places, steps had been carved into the ice for "trampers" like us; these, in addition to the holes in some of the walls that looked like large, rounded windows, and a large tunnel we walked through on our way only added to the feeling that this was some alien world, already inhabited, that we were only visiting.

The famed "blue ice" was all around, adding color to the white landscape. It was especially noticeable in deep cracks and crevices, enhancing the already blued shadows. Several of these deep crevices ran across our path, forcing us to step over them, peering down into the abyss beneath our feet and hoping we wouldn't be swallowed up at the next moment.

Unfortunately, at this point both of us started getting blisters on our heels - with unfamiliar gear and not much time to put it on, we hadn't tied our boot laces tightly enough. We couldn't stop, and just kept following our guide down and down into a large crevasse where we were to begin our first climb.

I absolutely thought our guides had lost their minds as they were leading us down there - in some places there were ropes to hold onto while descending the 2-foot tall "steps" (aka, narrow and unevenly spaced shelves in the walls of ice, sometimes stacked vertically, sometimes on opposing sides of a large gorge)... and in other places, there were no ropes at all to help with our descent into the Earth.

When we reached the bottom of the crevasse and I saw the towering, sheer wall of ice we were supposed to climb, then I knew they were crazy. We were given two axes, strapped onto the safety rope, and off we went, like geckos clinging to a wall.

It is absolutely like nothing else I have ever done, and still seems preposterous when I think that all that was keeping us on that wall was 1/4"- 1" of our axes embedded into the wall, along with about an inch from the crampons on our feet - and just the spikes on our toes, at that!

And in this fashion, with barely any contact with the ice wall, we inched our way up, bit by bit.

It was exhilarating (if not simultaneously terrifying and exhausting), and we got to climb in three different areas. Jeff was such a pro he made it up an inverted climb to the very top, until his 2 axes were hooked over the top of the wall and his feet were dangling in midair below.

All too soon, the sun sank behind the mountains and we had to begin our trek back. It was an incredible day, and an experience we'd recommend to any glacier-visitor!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blackwater Rafting with the Glowworms

Blackwater Rafting Gear

As soon as our USB drive was loaded with the pictures from zorbing, we were in the car and off to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Our wet clothing sprawled on the dashboard, drying in the sunlight as we sped through the rolling, sheep-spotted hills of the surrounding farmland.

After two hours of counting sheep, our clothes were nearly dry and we had arrived at the headquarters for the blackwater rafting trip. I was disappointed that my shirt was still slightly damp - it was slightly cool outside, and I wasn't thrilled to be made any cooler.

The slightly damp shirt ended up being the least of my concerns. After we signed the necessary forms (yes, even if you rip off my helmet and push me over a waterfall, I promise not to sue you), we were led outside to gear up. They handed us booties, boots, helmets with headlamps, and wetsuits that looked as if they'd been worn a thousand times and maybe dragged across the rocks of the cave as well. And they were wet.

Not "damp," but wet - cold, clammy and wet. It took plenty of wiggling, tugging, and pulling to get it on. My shirt now seemed a trivial concern.

Outfitted in our wet wetsuits, rubber boots and helmets, we piled into a bus and drove to the cave. It didn't hit me until we were inside the cave that we would be in a cave - inside the Earth - for the next 3 hours. It was dark, and very much seemed like we might be on a journey to the center of the Earth.

We alternated tramping through the cave on foot and floating down the river when it was deep enough in our inner-tubes. We also made two waterfall jumps that had a surprising technique to them: we were instructed to stand backwards on the ledge, heels hanging over the precipice and water rushing over our ankles. Then, bent forward slightly, with our bums sticking through the donut-hole in the inner-tube, we jettisoned ourselves off backwards and splashed, butt-first, into the black water below.

But the highlight of the expedition was certainly the "glowworms." We spotted a few early on, but nothing was like seeing the entire ceiling covered with them, like stars in the night sky. We formed a chain in our tubes, each sticking our boot-clad feet under the armpits of the person in front of us, and floated through a cathedral-like area of the cave. The ceiling arced above us, and tiny points of blue light seemed to hang suspended in the air.

It was completely breathtaking, floating in silence under the starry cave ceiling. Definitely worth the utter coldness that took a hot shower, change of clothes, and hot soup to remedy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Zealand: Zorbing

We didn't stay long in Rotorua the next morning - we had zorbing to do! With only three locations worldwide offering the chance to roll down a giant hill in what appears to be an oversized hamster ball partially filled with water, we weren't going to miss our chance to try this "extreme sport."

After we arrived at the Zorb site, just outside of Rotorua, we donned our swimsuits and clambered into a beat up old van that bounced us all the way to the top of the hill where the Zorb ball awaited our arrival. Three young kids who were going for their third time that day rode up with us, and chattered excitedly the whole way, strategizing how best to tumble and slosh their way down the hill. At the top, we climbed out of the van and head-first into the Zorb ball. It was like being inside a spherical kiddie-pool that was filled with warm water. It was clear enough to make out indistinct shapes outside the ball, but nothing more. We sat, perched on the edge of the hill inside our ball, and waited.

Then, a loud thump on the outside of the ball gave us our signal: we moved to the front - the side where the ground sloped away underneath us. We could feel ourselves beginning to tip forward... and then we were over the edge, and tumbling down the hill. Inside the giant orb, we sloshed and splashed in the water, sliding against the sides and bumping into each other. There was no controlling where we were going, and though it did no good, we couldn't help but splay our hands and feet out in every direction as we picked up speed. It was like being inside a giant snowball tumbling down a mountainside. 

Soon enough, though, the ground evened out and the ball slowed. They opened the side and we slid out, smiling, laughing and wet. It was a great ride!

Coming in the next post: Blackwater Rafting in the Glowworm Caves

Friday, June 10, 2011

New Zealand: An Epic Honeymoon - Part 1

First let me say, we knew we had picked the right place for our honeymoon when, upon entering the country and going through customs, they specifically asked us, "What kind of camping gear do you have with you?" Any country in which this is a standard question for all visitors as they cross the border is totally cool in my book.

We arrived to a beautifully gray and rainy Auckland around 9:30am. It was a long day, starting in Dallas the morning after our wedding, then flying to L.A., where Katie and Thea tag-teamed picking us up from LAX so we could go home, swap our bags out, then drive back to catch our flight. We ended up with a 2-hour delay and didn't leave until 1:30am on Monday morning. Thanks to the international dateline, we arrived this Tuesday morning - a full day later.

But, it was a smooth trip and now we're here, ready for adventure!

Right off the bat I got more of an adventure than I bargained for: thanks to leaving Jeff's driver's license in the scanner at home, I got to be the official "hirer" of the rental car, which also means I was the official driver on the trip. Normally not worth writing home about (or, in this case, blogging...), but in New Zealand they drive on the "wrong side" of the road. This puts the driver on the right side of the car, the gear-shift to your left, and oh yes - the lever for the windshield wipers is to the left of the steering wheel instead of the turn-indicator being on the left (this was a fact I reminded myself of often, as I would inadvertently make the wipers come to life as I was preparing to change lanes... oops).

I had practice driving on the right side (and remembering about those dang windshield wipers) right from the start, as we immediately left Auckland and drove 2 hours south to Matamata - home of the Alexander Family sheep farm, and "Hobbiton," the set used for filming the Shire in Lord of the Rings.

Many of the 11,000+ sheep watched us drive along in "Gandalf," the white tour bus, as we left with the tour group on our way to the set. Once there, we got to see all of the Hobbit holes they constructed for filming, including Bag End. Each has a brilliantly colored door and well tended garden. They had all just been "freshened up," as filming for The Hobbit began less than a month ago.

After returning to "The Shire's Rest" (their base for the tours), we watched a sheep-shearing demo and I was thrilled to bottle-feed one of the lambs we had seen in the yard earlier!

The other important note from this afternoon was this is where we tried our first Ginger Beer. A cross between Ginger Ale and Root Beer, it has a strong ginger flavor and this particular brand (Bundaberg - supposedly the favorite of New Zealanders) came in a cute bottle that I'm sure made it taste even better.

After leaving Matamata, we wound our way down one-lane roads through farm after farm until we arrived in Rotorua, where we collapsed until the next morning!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When you've done everything else in Los Angeles...

The video is up! Watch it on youtube.

Or, even if you haven't seen everything there is to see in Los Angeles, but like me, you're craving some adventurous outdoors-time and lack the time and money to go on a roadtrip, then Angeles National Forest is the place for you.

Not only is the park, which lies just north of Los Angeles, a welcome respite from the asphalt and high-rises of the city, but it is also the only place in California you can do a state-licensed bungee jump off a bridge.

Of course, I wasn't planning on bungee-ing when I went. Oh, sure - I thought about it when my roommate, Sarah, told me she had researched some bungee company and made a reservation to jump. But I quickly came to the conclusion that bridges were made for walking and driving on, not jumping off. So, when Thea (another one of our friends) and I went with Sarah to Angeles National Forest on Saturday, it was purely for moral support and to enjoy the beautiful hike on the way to the jump site.

When we met the Bungee America group in Azusa before caravaning up to the trailhead, they weighed all of us to ascertain which weight category we fell into for the bungee cords, even those of us who protested that we were only going along to watch our friends jump. But,
even though the logical (though perhaps naive) part of me was asking, "Why do you need to remember that? You're not jumping, silly!" I found myself memorizing which jump group I would be in.

The trail to the jump site is beautiful, meandering along the edge of a river that cuts through the mountains. It feels worlds away from the city, with no trace of humanity save the subtle delineation of the path in front of you. And it's much more challenging than I expected: we waded through the river at least six times, crossing back and forth to pick up the trail on the opposite bank. The sun was already beating down on us at 10am, and I was not a little worried about a few guys in the group who seemed to have brought something in their water bottles that was intended to help them make the leap off the bridge, but might not have been as effective at helping them navigate the narrow, rocky ledges or deal with the heat.

Sarah took advantage of the two hour hike as an opportunity to try to talk Thea and me into making the jump with her. And actually, by the end of the hike, I could almost picture myself doing it - making the jump and having wonderful, heroic stories to tell afterward; knowing that I can, in fact, be a thrill-seeker when I so choose. Then, we arrived at the bridge.

"The Bridge to Nowhere," as it is named, spans the rocky, boulder-filled gorge that the river runs through 150 feet below. I leaned slightly over the concrete railing of the bridge to see just what the jumpers were facing, and the first thought that popped into my head was a vehement, "Hell, no!"

Don't get me wrong - it's a beautiful site. The river rushing over the giant, smooth boulders. The rocks all worn smooth by the force of the water. But, the thought of freefalling towards it made it appear less beautiful and more... well... fatal.

We were all tired from our trek, and we sat on the bridge to eat our lunch and, for some, to ponder their fate. Soon, "jump school" began, and Michael, a "jump master" from Bungee America began explaining how this whole plummeting off bridges thing works (though I don't think he phrased it that way).

That logical, and slightly naive, side of my brain was still asking, "Why do you need to know this? Did you see that view over the railing? We are not going down there." But, I listened anyway, and heard all about how they're certified by the same people who license theme park attractions; and how, even if all the bungee cords break except for one (people typically have at least three, if not more, bungee cords on a jump) you'll still be just fine and won't hit the rocks below; and how, in over 13 years, they've never had an injury. Well, all those things sounded pretty reasonable to me. It began to seem like a fairly safe thing to do, actually, jumping off this bridge. In fact, it was probably safer than the hike we just went on, where we were crossing rocky ledges with no safety ropes. And heck, it had to be way safer than driving on the freeways everyday in Los Angeles. But, the thought of actually committing to this jump still did not seem appealing to me.

Then people started making their jumps. One after another, people were flinging themselves off the bridge. And you know the strangest thing? After awhile, it began to seem normal to be doing this. Just like when people watch hundreds of slasher movies and become numb to the violence, so I was becoming numb to the insanity of plunging off the side of a bridge. I again began to toy with the idea of doing it myself, but through the "numbness," I could still feel the fear battling with my determination to be adventurous and take this opportunity while I had it. Who knew when I would have the time to do another two hour hike out to this bridge just to jump off of it? Now I was torn and unable to commit to a decision one way or the other.

In the end, what "pushed me over the edge," so to speak, was something Thea said. As we stood on the bridge, watching person after person hurl themselves off and proceed to bounce like human yo-yos over the rocks below, she looked up and said, "There is just nothing in me that wants to do that." I stopped, as the logical side of my brain finally acknowledged the apparent facts of the situation: there was a part of me that wanted to do that. Every person I watched I was trying to imagine myself in his or her place, trying to imagine what it would feel like to soar off the side of a bridge and fly over the river below, floating in midair, then freefalling towards the earth until being snapped back up by a giant rubber band. Something about it sounded so... free. I mean, there aren't many chances in life to see what something like that feels like.

The next thing I knew I was asking Ron, the owner of the company, if I could still decide to make a jump that day. And of course, they're no dummies: they always let people decide last-minute to jump, even if they don't sign up ahead of time. So then I was stepping into the harness, having someone check and double check all the straps and buckles. And then, the scariest part of the whole experience: they latched the bungee cord onto me.
There was no turning back now. I could feel its weight pulling me towards the edge of the bridge. Only one possibility lay ahead of me, and that was to jump.

Michael, one of the "jump masters," explained to everyone earlier that there is an invisible wall of fear that exists running along the railing of the bridge. Once you cross it, all the thoughts you had of looking cool, of impressing your friends, of showing off, all disappear and are replaced by one thought: get me back on the other side of that railing! But, as I stepped over the railing onto the tiny red metal jump platform, what I felt most was an overwhelming sense of determination. I may have decided to do this at the last minute, but once I made up my mind, there was no possibility of turning back. So, I jumped.

I never really got that soaring sensation, though. You see, what they tell you is to dive out and then somewhere along the way reach for your toes and you'll naturally turn upward so the bungee (that's attached to your stomach) will snap you back up. What they didn't know was that I did gymnastics for 10 years. And what I didn't know was they were right on about one thing: after crossing that invisible wall at the top of the bridge, all your thoughts and plans do vanish, and pure instinct takes over. So, when I jumped, rather than freefalling and doing a half turn at the last minute onto my back, I immediately reached for my toes and did a forward double-pike off the dive platform.

Afterward, everyone would tell me it was really impressive, and I'd love to be able to say it was intentional, but it was purely instinct. They had been talking before about the confusion your brain feels when there's no ground beneath your feet and your body is falling in a way it never has before. The trouble, though, is my brain knows what to do when my feet aren't on the ground and I'm flying through the air: flip. I remember thinking, "This isn't what I expected to do." But it was too late, and before I knew it, I had done two forward flips off the bridge, was at the bottom of my cord, and I was being snapped back up towards the bridge with 3Gs of force. It was awesome!

I honestly don't remember much about the next part, either. I continued to bounce up and down, back and forth under the bridge, stretching my arms and legs out as if I was a flying squirrel soaring between treetops, partly because I didn't know what else to do with my limbs as I bounced around on this giant bungee, and partly because I felt like, if I could extend myself as far as possible in every direction, I could somehow experience everything more fully.

I came to a rest all too quickly, and they lowered down the retrieval cord and hauled me back up. It all happened so fast: I was up and over the railing of the bridge before I even had a chance to fully absorb what I had just experienced. I guess that's why people do more than one jump.

Anyway, to end the long saga of our adventure-filled day, I will simply say that I'm glad I did it. The Angeles National Forest and the hike are amazing, and I will certainly be back to enjoy them. But there is something about jumping off of a bridge and experiencing that total freedom of falling that is invigorating, inspiring and hopeful. I hope you have the chance to experience that as well.