Skydiving virgin, Grand Canyon style

Skydiving virgin, Grand Canyon style

Up until a year ago I was a skydiving virgin. But I was not a Grand Canyon virgin. Before this gets awkward, let me explain.

IMG_9116I’m a hiker. I love the outdoors and exploring uncharted paths and blazing new trails. I’ve spent a significant amount of time in and around the Grand Canyon. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to know the skies above Grand Canyon. At least not freefalling from 15,000 foot and reaching speeds of over 125 mph.

After my first jump, the tandem pilot told me skydiving is like deleting your mind. If only for a few seconds, your brain and body are in total overdrive and nothing can interrupt or break through those few heart stopping moments. IMG_8486Whoa buddy. Deleting your mind? Can we even do that? And, if so, why haven’t I tried it before?

Since we’re not all allowed to delete our minds every day, let me explain what it was like to skydive at the Grand Canyon.

It turns out I’m hooked. I love skydiving and what is better than skydiving above one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World? That doesn’t happen every day, unless you’re the tandem pilot, then it probably does.

To skydive the Canyon, you have to drive from either Flagstaff or Williams, a 50 to 80 mile one way trip. When you arrive in Tusayan, a small gateway town of 500 people located one mile outside of Grand Canyon’s gates, you’ll find a small state run airport. Paragon Skydiving operates a modest counter and storage area inside the airport. Paragon, is an international skydiving company operating drop zones around the world.

IMG_8479When I arrived, Paragon had me sign my life away, followed by a very thorough safety video. I was then suited up in a jumpsuit and taken to the runway where I climbed into a Cessna 206 airplane and prepared for take-off.

By the time we lifted off the runway I started to feel the butterflies in my stomach.  I promised myself I wouldn’t throw up I forgot to tell the pilot I get motion sickness so I focused on looking out the window where I got my first glimpse of the Canyon from the above. I almost entirely forget about those butterflies. For that kind of view, a few butterflies were totally worth it.IMG_8483

During the 15 to 20 minute flight along the South Rim, I got a spectacular view of the Canyon. I watched timeless layers of rocks, stacked in reds, browns and yellow pass by while the Colorado River snaked its way in an effortless dance through the geological wonder.

“It’s like looking at a painting,” said tandem pilot Owen Ross.skydiving views at the grand canyon

Ross has lost count of how many jumps he has. All he knows is that it’s well over 5,000. Originally from a small town outside of Melbourne, Australia, Ross has been skydiving since he was 19. He’s a seasoned pro and it shows. You know you’re with a professional when you’re ready to jump out of an airplane and the guy you’re strapped to can still make you smile. And he was right, it was like a painting. I couldn’t take my eyes off the Canyon. I didn’t want to.

Before I knew it, the plane was circling higher…staying well out of the restricted airspace over the Canyon. Paragon offers tandem only skydiving because Grand Canyon has some of the most restricted airspace in the U.S.

Suddenly it was time. The moment of truth had arrived. We sat on the floor of the plane and Ross pulled the harnesses tight. I gripped his leg trying to decide if it would be me, the adrenaline or Ross who projected us out of the plane.

“We’re going to do this together,” Ross said as he and I deliberately rolled up the canvas separating us from the open sky.  “Now, cross your arms and tuck your feet under the plane. Are you ready?”

Ready? Absolutely. Paragon only hires pros and before I had time to change my mind my feet were hanging outside the airplane and we were rolling forward in a somersault before straightening out and plummeting toward Earth, freefalling at 125 mph.

Mind deletion.

I couldn’t stop screaming. Not from fear, but from sheer, uninhibited pleasure. I felt like Superman, shooting toward Earth. Death and fear didn’t even enter my mind. For those 35 seconds of freefalling I felt free and I realized I was seeing the Canyon like I had never seen it before.

Grand Canyon is a natural wonder for a reason. Seeing it from the top, with the wind screaming by your face and your heart in your throat, is the only way to go.

After pulling the rip cord for our parachute I had another five to seven minutes under canopy to take it all in.IMG_7319

Landing at the airport was a breeze. At least Ross made it look that way.

“Trust the landing,” he said.

GOPR9436_0.06.26.19Skydiving doesn’t take a lot of guts. It takes trust. Trust in your tandem pilot, trust in your equipment and trust in your sanity 
 you don’t want to lose it when you’re free falling from 15,000 feet. As long as everything is operating smoothly, the odds of making it back to earth in one piece are pretty good.

It’s been said you have a more likely chance of getting struck by lightning than dying in a skydiving accident. Trust me on this, skydiving plus the Grand Canyon are two opportunities that don’t come along every day and I promise you don’t want to miss it.

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Hiking heroes: saving lives and time

Hiking heroes: saving lives and time

untitled-3They can’t tell you to stop but they can give you some life-saving suggestions.

Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) rangers are trained EMTs, whose job is to provide guidance on preventing self-injury and hiking smart on Grand Canyon’s trails. When you’ve decided you can’t take one – more – step, they’re there to help you make it to the top.

“It is scary down here and it should be. It’s serious.” Josh Weiner, Grand Canyon PSAR ranger.

Josh Weiner and Ashley Butts, PSAR rangers at Grand Canyon National Park take their job serious. They enjoy what they do – hiking Grand Canyon’s trails, talking to strangers, hanging out … all while calculating in their minds – determining if you are prepared for the hike in and more importantly the hike out.

“Everybody has a different tactic but we all have the same goal,” Butts said. “We are talking to people going down. We say hi to people going up but in my mind, if people are going up and they’re not on the side of the trail puking, they’re doing ok.”

Weiner agreed.

“There’s a big mental aspect down here (in the Canyon),” he said. “People are looking up at the walls and you’re feeling tired… and then we are there telling someone here are electrolytes, mix this in your water 
 it’s scary down here and it should be. It’s serious.”

I caught up with the two of them in August, for an article I was writing for Grand Canyon News. I wanted to get a first hand glimpse into what their job is all about. We hit the trail a little after 8 a.m.

We decided to go down the Bright Angel Trail on the Canyon’s South Rim. As we set out, hikers meandered down the trail, pausing for pictures and peering over the edge. A mule train rounded the corner and the guide gave a warning hello and directions to stand clear.

The corridor trails – the Bright Angel and South Kaibab are top priority for PSAR. Butts explained how the rangers and volunteers spend the majority of their time canvassing these trails. Other trails they patrol on a daily basis are the Hermit, Tonto and Grandview trails – all on the South Rim.

“A typical morning on the Hermit you see less than 30 people,” she said. “A typical morning on the Bright Angel you’ll see three or four hundred.”

untitled2As we hike they explain, what to me sounds like common sense, but what they say a surprising number of people don’t pay attention to when planning to hike the Canyon. Their first tip – get an early start.

“You can hike to Indian Garden if you’re going downhill early. But if you start now (9:30 a.m.) you’re going to be going uphill at noon and that’s just brutal,” Weiner said. “We encourage people to sit out that entire part of the day (hottest time, typically between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.).”

The people who start their hike super early in the morning they are not as worried about. It’s those who start late in the day, when the heat becomes unbearable and exhaustion sets in, that can later turn into a rescue.

In 2015 almost 29,000 preventative actions were carried out by PSAR rangers. These actions could be as simple as suggesting an alternative route or distance of a planned hike and handing out a package of Fritos. They could also be much more serious, where a PSAR ranger spends eight hours hiking out with a distressed hiker or providing basic emergency services until help arrives.

In 2015, PSAR made contact with 117,267 hikers, made 29,000 preventative actions to help a hiker and helped with over 350 hiker assists.

PSAR at the Canyon has been a jumping off point for other preventative operations in the NPS, including Yosemite.

“Grand Canyon’s PSAR program has been in existence for about 20 years now,” said Ben Cooper, PSAR supervisor at the Canyon. According to Cooper, in its infancy Grand Canyon’s PSAR was much less established until a spike in heat related incidents in the mid 1990s caused the NPS to consider the idea of getting rangers on the trails to assess situations before they turned into full-scale emergencies.

This is Butts second year as a seasonal PSAR ranger. PSAR offers an opportunity to do what she loves – put her EMT training to use and work outside.

untitled-5We pause and Butts asks an older man with a full pack and sweat drenched shirt and bandana how far he’s going.

“I’ve got a backcountry permit for Bright Angel Campground,” he responds, leaning heavily on his hiking poles.

Butts looks at him closely and gently explains it’s a 10 mile hike to the campground and how right now, the going down is the easy part. The hard part is coming up the trail, after you’re exhausted and filthy.

He nods, taking in what she’s telling him. A few minutes later he turns around and is headed back up the trail. Confirming that only a mile in, his knees are already aching and his pack is too heavy.

Butts and I make eye contact and I knowingly nod my head, silently agreeing with her – that could have turned into a bad situation.

We reached a good turn around point and ready ourselves for the uphill trek. On a daily basis Butts and Weiner each carry a hiking pack weighing between 25 to 35 pound, depending on how far down the trail they’re going.

untitledLater they dump their pack and show me what’s inside; a medical kit, radio, snacks – Fritos, Cheez-Its, Goldfish, an MRE (meals ready to eat), compass, GPS, electrolyte packages for water, two headlamps, tarp, hiking poles, spray bottle of water and personal food and water.

“You should always carry enough water for yourself, for the day (and) water is important but so is food,” Butts says as she explains the ‘Drink to Thirst’ which is new verbiage the NPS is using on trailhead signs around the park.

We continue on, the rim growing steadily closer. Hikers pass us and Butts and Weiner greet each of them with a friendly smile and a pointed question. Where are you headed today? How far are you going? How are you feeling?

“It’s hard to know how effective you are but it’s safe to say we are effective,” Weiner said. “It’s not a ridiculous assumption to say that one of these people would have died if they had gone on.”

“We have a big thing we call psychological first aid,” Butts adds. “Which is a huge part of job. We encourage people, help them get there in their head to be able to keep going. It’s a huge deal and I’d say most of the time when we’re called down trail for a hiker assist that’s what it is. They need someone to encourage them to make it and help them and be with them.”

untitled-4As we reach the trailhead Butts and Weiner head off, their packs full, their mission clear – saving lives and reminding visitors to stop and smell the roses.

Making my passion my paycheck

Making my passion my paycheck

IMG_7944All weekend I absorbed the discussions, the pictures and the dramas that unfolded. They played out before me in the form of short films, interviews, photographs and conversations.

The weekend was heavily laden with information – which I had anticipated. What I had not predicted was the footprint it would leave in my subconscious or the light bulb moment I would experience.

For the last 14 years Flagstaff has held its annual Mountain Film Festival and this weekend I attended many of the films, coffee and bar talks and spent time conducting interviews and networking. One of my interviewees was a filmmakers who does truly spectacular work. His company, 4cornerfilms, helps with logistics, planning and production for film companies like the BBC, HBO and National Geographic. Any company who wants to work in logistically challenging and particularly hazardous parts of the world – including and specializing in the Grand Canyon.

IMG_7906I also met several renowned Grand Canyon artists, National Geographic correspondents and photographers and many local filmmakers. The topics of the films were fairly diverse with all of Saturday night’s films highlighting various aspects of the Grand Canyon.IMG_7904

 

 

It was an enriching experience and an event that should be attended with someone who enjoys discussing politics, the environment and has an appreciation for the talent of those behind the lenses, pens and brushes of the event.

There is such passion at film festivals. It come deep from within the artists and the works they create.

This film festival was extremely politically charged since many filmmakers and high profile guests were focusing on developments and uranium mining that is encroaching on the Grand Canyon.

IMG_7931It was heavily environmental and liberal, with little to no conservative or right wing views expressed. To each their own.

However, one of the things that struck me over the course of the weekend was the passion, creativity, depth and devotion the artists put into their causes and their work.

IMG_7894I realized it’s the kind of passion I want to have in my walk with Jesus Christ. He is my passion, He is my cause. He is my savior. He deserves to have all of my devotion and passion.

All weekend as I absorbed the discussions, the pictures and the dramas that unfolded before me I thought about the time and energy everyone has given the Grand Canyon.

As much as I love the Canyon I still see it as just a landmark.IMG_0025

Is it grand and majestic beyond adjectives? Yes. Should we should protect and preserve it? Absolutely. That’s our job as stewards of this earth. But what if all the energy and passion that is given to one of the world’s most remarkable landscapers could be focused on humanity and saving souls and doing the work of the son of God?

Can you imagine the lives and people that would be impacted?

What I slowly came to realized is that the idea that has slowly grown stronger inside me each year is a passion for Jesus Christ.

I want to filter – nay capture, that same intensity and passion the filmmakers and artists and activists put into their causes and use it for Christ’s benefit. I want to use it and make it my work.

I want the one life I have to live to be about our Creator and His cause.

I want to take the opportunities and talents I have and turn them into movements. I want people to be passionate and excited about the savior of the world. I want to share hope and Christ’s story in jails and prisons, in foreign countries, to the displaced and the discarded of the world. To those who are seeking answers and to those who don’t know yet that they need answers.

I want to serve God with my talents and I want to have the passion and the faith to follow Him fearlessly.

braceletsGod gives us talents and desires. Mine is to write and to travel and live fearlessly. I believe God already has and will continue to turn my passions into my paychecks.

Because that’s what He does. He has a plan. We (you, me, all of us) have to trust Him and remember that He has a plan.

……….for now and for me, that looks like my daily and weekly life right here in northern Arizona. Which brings challenges of its own.

For those seeking to make your passions into something more, I encourage you to lean into what you desire and dream about and pursue it with your whole heart.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Ralph Waldo Emerson 

 

For those wanting to turn their passion for Christ into more than just idleness, I encourage you to walk close to Christ and He will give you guidance. Learn to listen and when you hear from God, don’t be afraid to be passionate. Speak up, speak out and live boldly for Jesus Christ.

 

Snowflakes in paradise: new friends in unexpected places

Snowflakes in paradise: new friends in unexpected places

IMG_0002It was snowing, there was sleet giving the car a dirty bath and the puddles on the road seemed to grow bigger and bigger.

It may not have been a perfect day for hiking but that didn’t concern me. I was hiking in one of the best hiking spots in the world – the Grand Canyon.IMG_0046

The grey weather and brisk air turned my cheeks  rosy as I wrestled my rain coat out of my pack and made sure my crampons were tied to my pack.

I was on assignment – Grand Canyon News partnering with the National Park Service (NPS) to get a good story. I liked it. The concept was beautiful and I knew from experience, it worked smoothly. There would be no hiccups on this trip.

I would be hiking down the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.  As I made my way along one of the world’s most well – known trails, the Bright Angel, I breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly – enjoying the moment.

This is my job and I love it. There is nothing like being on a story that takes you on an assignment deep into the country you love. This was not the first time I’d headed into the recesses of the Canyon for a story. I’ve been North, South, East and West in the Canyon for stories and for fun. It never gets old. But, I’m not going to lie, being on assignment has its perks – it’s the best part of my job.

This assignment was no different, except for the weather. The snow and sleet were unexpected.IMG_0042

I didn’t mind it, actually, it invigorated me – making me feel even more alive.

My sister and hiking companion, Myriah, had bravely bundled up to make the trip with me. She has hiked the Canyon with me a few times … she is freakin awesome and I love her all the more for keeping me company on my treks. IMG_0004

We started out strong, but almost immediately turned back – Myriah was cold and wasn’t convinced it was going to warm up. Convinced she needed more layer, we headed back to the General Store where she picked up some long john bottoms. IMG_0043

As we started down the trail the Canyon was covered in a filmy blanket of haze. Jagged pieces of the Canyon shot out here and there in the distance. In some places it was completely covered in hazy clouds. Snowflakes fell gently on my cheeks and dissolved on my eyelashes.

Mud. Lots of mud, slush and reddish water puddles collected on the trail for us to go through and around. I stopped to roll up my long pants, tucking the bottoms into my socks to keep them dry. image

We made our way slowly down the trail, taking our time. We passed long and short distance hikers. Some eagerly stepping out on the wet trail, while others barely made eye contact in an attempt to keep the rain out of their faces. I breathed out foggy air and blinked away rain drops as, offering brave smiles to my fellow hikers.

I stopped, snapping pictures again and again. I couldn’t help myself. IMG_0104

The rain and snow slowed and by the time we reached Indian Gardens, it had stopped completely.IMG_0055

We paused to fill our camelbaks at the water spigot and munched on snacks. Watching as the sun slowly forced its way into the grey mass of clouds overhead.

As we picked up our bags and headed down the trail, the sun broke and its rays immediately turned the Canyon walls into glorious natural hues. IMG_0161

We marched on and I got my recorder and camera out. Questioning our fellow hikers.

“Why are you hiking today?”

“What’s the most challenging part of hiking the Canyon for you?”

A variety of responses and languages shot back at me
 “For fun, for the challenge, to see if I could do it
”

IMG_0166One young traveler was hiking with his father. At first I asked his dad questions, but the 11-year-old had faster responses.  He answered me with eagerness and his smile became broader the more we talked.

My young friend I met along the Bright Angel Trail.
My young friend I met along the Bright Angel Trail.

It was the first time he had hiked the Canyon he told me.

“It has been a dream since I was a little tot,” he said.

I laughed and told him to look for his name in the newspaper. “I’ve always wanted to hike the Canyon and I’ve always wanted to be in a newspaper,” he exclaimed.

Two dreams fulfilled in one day. Luck boy.

I was making progress and as I tip toed across a small stream – choosing my path carefully, when a stranger approached and plodded straight through the middle.

I raised my eyebrow and laughed, “I guess that’s the way you’re supposed to do it, then?” IMG_0223

He laughed and I picked up an accent. He was from New Zealand and was biking around the world. Interesting.  I have a tendency to get sidetracked by a good story, so the three of us walked on. He told us about his travels as we rounded the last few corners of the trail. Several rafts were floating the river as we crossed the silver bridge and made our way to the campground.

We left our new friend, promising to catch up later and found the ranger station. I checked in and my ‘assignment’ showed up and guided us back to the River Ranger Station cabin where we would be staying.

My assignment – Sjors Horstman is a Norwegian emigrant and almost half of his life has been dedicated to the Canyon as a full-time volunteer.. For the past 27 years he has lived off savings he accumulated during his time as a T.V. repairman in L.A. so he can live and work at Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground.   He’s unforgettable. I immediately liked him.

Sjors Horstman
Sjors Horstman

The trans-canyon pipeline was under repair, so we didn’t have running water at the cabin 
 not that I’m complaining. The River Ranger Station is hard to get into and after flipping through the log book and seeing many well-known names, I felt more privileged than ever and thrilled to be spending the night there. The cabin was great. The bed soft and warm, the kitchen clean – minus the noisy mouse that keeps house there. The rug felt soft below my tired feet, I definitely couldn’t have asked for more.

We settled in before I headed back to the silver bridge to take sunset photos.

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IMG_0264IMG_0267

IMG_0253On my walkabout I ran into Mr. New Zealand. We stopped to talk and ended up flipping through pictures he had taken from around the world.

Finally we returned to the cabin where I collected my sister before the three of us went to the Ranger Talk at the amphitheater behind the ranger station.

Questions. People have lots of questions, is what I thought after the Q & A ranger session ended. At least they were fairly good questions.

The three of us shared two cups of hot cocoa and a package of peanut M & M’s at the canteen before returning back to our sleeping arrangements.

The following day, Sjors called up to the cabin and we arranged to meet for the interview.

IMG_0231He showed us around the campground and talked about his life in the Canyon.

Slowly I pressed him for more. How did he end up there? Why had he stayed for so long?

IMG_0233He relented and two hours later, Myriah and I filled our camelbaks and headed toward the trailhead.

We had debated on which route to take up, but at the split we veered to the left and headed up the South Kaibab.

Slowly, it snaked its way up through the cliffs. We passed hikers –  eager to reach the bottom. IMG_0331

Finally we stopped to peel off a few of our extra layers. The sun had made its appearance and the day had turned warmed up dramatically.  A light breeze blew out of the west…just enough to keep it cool. Perfection.

We marched on, making our way up the Grand Staircase and past the rest areas. Runners passed us – on their way up, but I didn’t care. It was glorious and we were in no hurry. A few hours later we rounded the last switchbacks and stood looking back down the miles of trail we had just climbed. IMG_0164

The Canyon and the people who care for it and hike it never ceases to amaze me. Hearing their stories and getting to create a few of my own is just one of the reasons I love my job.

Click here to read the full article on Sjors.

image “Destiny, I feel, is also a relationship – a play between divine grace and willful self-effort. Half of it you have no control over; half of it is absolutely in your hands, and your actions will show measurable consequence. Man is neither entirely a puppet of God, nor is he entirely the captain of his own destiny; he’s a little of both. We gallop through life like circus performers balancing on two speeding side by side horses – one foot is on the horse called fate, the other on the horse called free will. And the question you have to ask every day is – which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?”

  • Elizabeth Gilbert, from Eat, Pray, Love