The Hole Truth
Canyoneering is roping in thousands of new adrenaline addicts,
but how safe is it?
This is an article from the May 28, 2001 issue
Six years ago Bo Beck stared down Heaps Canyon, the 11-mile
sandstone chute that snakes treacherously through Utah's Zion
National Park, for the first time. Just to get to Heaps's gaping
mouth, he and two buddies had hiked 11 hours, bushwhacking their
way through two miles of desert brush. Now they began their
plunge into what Beck called "the great unknown." Some 12 hours
later they would stumble back to their base camp, but only after
navigating through miles of nearly pitch-black tunnels, swimming
across 20-foot bowls of bone-chilling rainwater and rappelling a
540-foot crevasse. "In canyoneering you get the endorphin rush
of climbing combined with the fear of the unknown, not to
mention the beauty and uniqueness of the rock striations," says
Beck, 45, a volunteer rescuer at Zion. "It's better than drugs."
Popular in the Swiss Alps, the Pyrenees and Australia's Blue
Mountains for nearly a century, canyoneering--an inverted cousin
of mountaineering that often includes swimming through rapids
and rappelling waterfalls--appears to be shedding its
longstanding underground status in the U.S. The sport is
especially popular in northern Arizona and Zion, its U.S.
epicenter, where traffic in the park's tricky narrows has
increased from some 6,000 canyoneers in 1998 to more than 16,000
Not everyone is thrilled with the rush of interest. Veteran
canyoneers worry that overeager weekend warriors are confusing
the jagged, water-slicked labyrinths of a canyon with their
health club climbing walls. "In rock climbing it takes a level
of competence to get yourself high enough to get into trouble,"
says Tom Jones, editor of the webzine Canyoneering USA. "In
canyoneering you start at the top and can get into trouble
before you realize it."
There is, of course, the potential for tragedy. Flash floods,
which can cause water levels to rise as much as 10 feet in a
matter of minutes, have killed 10 people in Zion alone. In the
summer of 1999, 21 members of a canyoneering trip died when
floodwaters overran the famed Interlaken, Switzerland, canyons.
"If we see another flash-flood tragedy, the government could
regulate canyon use," says Rich Carlson, founder of the American
Canyoneering Association. "But if people learn the right skills,
this sport is going to grow exponentially. At the end of the day,
look how many things you've done--hiking, swimming, rock climbing,
rappelling. Now that's a rewarding outdoor experience." --Kelley
Tao Berman: Legend of the Fall
In the quiet moments before he attempts to navigate an especially
vertiginous stretch of rapids and waterfalls, kayaker Tao Berman
closes his eyes. "If I can't visualize every detail of what I'm
about to do, I'll get out of the kayak," says the 22-year-old
Washington native. "There's no time for fear or doubt. That would
slow my reaction time, which could be catastrophic."
Berman's reaction time was good enough to land him in the record
book last week--twice. On May 15, on a tributary of the Snoqualmie
River high in Washington's Cascade Mountains, he set the kayaking
speed-altitude descent record when he dropped 100 feet over a
five-waterfall stretch in 19.38 seconds. The next day, on a
tributary of the nearby Carbon River, he made an unprecedented
210-foot descent over a 1/8-mile stretch. He emerged from both of
those runs with nothing worse than a stiff back.
"I want to choose the most dangerous routes so if somebody tries
to beat the records, they'll need to be fearless and talented,"
says Berman, who also holds the mark for the biggest plunge over
a single waterfall, a 98-footer in Canada's Banff National Park,
in '99. "I don't want easy records." --Lars Anderson
A new DVD offers thin air and a thin plot, but spectacular views
Perhaps director Martin Campbell's most infamous contribution to
cinema is the spot of inanity that precedes the title sequence of
the James Bond flick GoldenEye, a logic-be-damned stunt that
finds 007 plunging off a cliff at gravity-defying speed. That
side of Campbell's sensibility--a cocktail of the crafty and the
moronic--plays out at 26,000 feet in the ice-pic Vertical Limit.
In laying out the tale of a botched climbing expedition on K2,
the director leaves no cliche of the Potentially Suicidal Rescue
Mission unexplored and no opportunity for gratuitous nitro
explosions wasted. He does, however, have an expert way with
action sequences, practically inducing viewer vertigo when a
character dangles over a gorgeous abyss. The disk's greatest
value to the serious adventurer, though, is found in the extras,
which include a lucid making-of documentary detailing the
peculiar logistics of shooting on location in New Zealand's
Southern Alps. (Who knew there was such a profession as
"avalanche cinematographer"?) Even better is a National
Geographic special in which interviews with such climbing titans
as Rick Ridgeway and Jim Wickwire are weaved among decades-old
footage to conjure the stark dangers and strange seductions of
the real K2. --Troy Patterson
Ffrom the Don't Try This at Home department: In Dry Fork, Utah,
Jim Rippey--known best as a pro snowboarder--made the first
documented backflip on a snowmobile last week (above), soaring
20 feet in the air before sticking his landing....
Don't be snowed by the hype coming from U.S. Skiing, which has
been crowing about the depth of the 30-person U.S. Alpine team
announced earlier this month. While 20 American Alpiners scored
World Cup points last season, it's more telling that only one,
Daron Rahlves, took home a medal at January's world
championships in Austria....
As of Monday, Erik Weihenmayer, who is attempting to become the
first blind climber to scale Mount Everest (SI ADVENTURE, April
23), had moved to Camp 2 (20,400 feet) in preparation for his
summit push, which had been delayed by foul weather. In
accordance with Nepalese law, no team is permitted to climb
above Base Camp (17,160 feet) after May 31....
With his ascent of Tibet's Shishapangma (26,291 feet) on
April 30, Ed Viesturs has only two mountains left (Pakistan's
Nanga Parbat and Nepal's Annapurna) in his quest to climb all 14
of the world's 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen.
The Shishapangma expedition went smoothly, Viesturs says, other
than a harrowing moment near the end when he and his climbing
partner, Veikka Gustafsson, returned to their camp to discover
that ravens had devoured most of their food.
Having swum the English Channel, run the Iditarod and set 10
world sailing records, among other acts of daring, Chicago
billionaire Steve Fossett is dabbling in another risky
enterprise. Next month, Fossett, 57, will attempt, for a fifth
time, to make the first solo trip around the world in a hot-air
balloon. He won't be flying first class; his unpressurized
capsule is smaller than a jail cell. Still, he takes a cheerful
outlook of his projected 15-day odyssey. "I think of it as a
camp-out in the sky," says the adventure capitalist, whose
previous attempts abruptly ended in places such as the Coral Sea
and a Russian wheat field.
Days, of a 90-day jail sentence, that Nathan Hall, 22, served
before he was released for good behavior, on April 27. In a
landmark case, the former lift operator at Vail was convicted
last year of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Alan
Cobb, whom Hall crashed into at the end of a 1997 ski run. Hall
says he would like to become a firefighter. "I like being with
people who save lives," he says.
For more adventure, go to cnnsi.com/adventure and check out these
--The Odd Man and the Sea: Jim Shekhdar rows the Pacific naked
--Take a powder: Several cool destinations for the summer skier
--Trail Guide: Complete U.S. National Parks info database
Faces and Feats
Carrie Edwards, San Francisco
Edwards, 30, biked 212.8 miles to win the 24 Hours of Adrenalin
endurance race held in Monterey, Calif. At last summer's
Australia Crocodile Trophy race, the personal trainer and
massage therapist became the first woman to finish the 15-day,
Mary Catherine Binkley, Gallatin, Tenn.
Mary, 13, finished 19th overall in the women's division of the
XTerra Lock 4 Off-Road Triathlon Challenge (half-mile swim,
12-mile bike ride, 4 1/2-mile run). The youngest competitor in the
event, Mary crossed the finish line in 2:47:53, more than 20
minutes ahead of her father, Mike, 49.
Rimas Jakelaitis, Brooklyn
Jakelaitis, 46, ran 901 miles--262 more than the runner-up--to
win the Sri Chinmoy 10-Day Race in New York City for the second
straight year. In September, Jakelaitis, a construction foreman,
will attempt to run an unprecedented 1,000 miles in 10 days,
again in New York City.
Submit Faces candidates to siadventure.cnnsi.com/faces.
Biff of the Month
No competitor in the 159-mile Paris-Roubaix race ever claimed
the so-called Road to Hell was paved with good intentions. Last
month only 55 of about 200 cyclists made it to the finish of the
famously mud-caked and cobblestoned course.