Ahh, spring, when a young journalist’s fancy turns to thoughts of getting the hell out of this motherlovin’ office. The buds are popping, the water is rising, the rains are coming and the youngsters are traipsing around half-nekkid in a veritable orgy of things-are-getting-better-fast optimism.
Last year we celebrated the season’s recreational opportunities with a sampler platter of activities keyed around the theme of escaping the mountainous heights by going down, as it were. Not wishing to court the career death of a lateral move, we felt pretty well compelled to go the other direction this year and focus on sports, not-quite-sports and assorted embolism enhancers that court the kick of altitude. Do come get high with us, won’t you?
Shane Combs and I don’t have a lot in common when it comes to heights. Since 1991, when he worked at Wild Bill’s Bungee Jump in Columbia Falls, Combs has become increasingly comfortable with playing in high places. Meanwhile, over the last dozen years, I’ve increasingly suffered from adult onset acrophobia.
When I told Combs about my problem—how I’ve grown more afraid of heights with each passing year—he didn’t seem convinced. To counter my point, Combs told me about the 78-year-old gentleman who mooned the crowd at Wild Bill’s before leaping from a metal cage and dropping 140 feet.
“He pulls his britches down and moons the whole waterpark,” says Combs. At the time, Wild Bill’s was located in the parking lot of the Big Sky Waterslide.
Waterslides don’t scare me, but heights do. I’m certain age has something to do with this loss of nerve. There’s no traumatic event to explain it. Back in 1991, I spent an entire summer jumping from high places, sometimes with no clothes, and always into water.
Now, the view from a ski lift is enough to make me gulp my breaths.
But it’s cool, I had my fun up there, diving into quarries and leaping from red rock cliffs into swimming holes hidden in the Utah desert. Those were the good old days, the laurels I rest upon while listening anxiously to Combs describe his growing love of heights.
Combs, 30, grew up in Columbia Falls. When he graduated from high school, he scored a job videotaping tourists who tested their mettle by making jumps at Wild Bill’s. Combs was interested most in learning about video production when he came to work that summer. He’d never bungee jumped; never even had the urge to try. But by the end of the summer, Combs had logged more than 300 leaps. What was once a passing interest became “an addiction.”
When business at Wild Bill’s started to wind down, Combs moved to Kentucky, where he took a job as a steeplejack. He traveled all over the country working on industrial smokestacks, some as much as 1,200 feet high. That’s just 231 feet shorter than the Sears Tower, North America’s tallest building.
For me, this is where Combs’ stories become truly terrifying. He recalls being more than 1,000 above the ground at the top of a smokestack. These structures “are built to sway,” says Combs, adding that there’s a lot of turnover in the business of maintaining and repairing smokestacks. “They’re looking for guys all the time because steeplejacking is a rough trade,” says Combs.
Once, while working in Illinois, Combs fell 40 feet onto a gravel and tar roof from the top of a ladder. “I hit that roof, and I kind of bounced and landed on my feet,” says Combs laughing. Laughing!?! Combs says his co-workers asked if he was OK. When he said yes, “They said, ‘OK, take five and get your head together.’”
That’s all the time Combs needed before he was back on that ladder. For eight years, Combs worked as a steeplejack. He saw cables snap and platforms fall. He experienced what it’s like to dangle hundreds of feet above the ground, waiting for someone to climb back to the top of the smokestack and re-set the safety line.
When Combs moved back to Columbia Falls in 1998, he went to work in construction. Combs liked his job, but he missed the heights, so he went out and bought a climbing harness and 450-foot rope. Then Combs got in his car and started to drive.
He drove past the Big Sky Waterslide, through Hungry Horse and up the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. He parked, hiked, tied in and dropped himself off a cliff near Hidden Lake. And there he hung, twisting in the breeze.
“I think it’s a peaked adrenaline rush because you’re dangling from one line. You’re on a web of life or death,” says Combs, explaining why he now loves to rappel from cliffs in Glacier National Park.
In a single day, Combs will hike in on a trail, then bushwhack into parts unknown. When he finds a cliff that’s appropriately high, he’ll secure his rope behind a tree or a rock. Then Combs will feed the line through what’s known as a figure eight. The figure eight is attached to Combs’ climbing harness, and it allows him to both jump and walk off cliffs.
As he goes, Combs lets out line. He dangles in places no man has dangled before. Sometimes he drops fast. Other times he lingers, perhaps next to a waterfall, taking in the sights and sounds.
“How peaceful it is, just thoughts that you normally don’t get to think about because you have so much more going on in life,” says Combs, recalling a trip to Virginia Falls. “When you get up there and it’s so serene and all you can hear is the water crashing on the rocks below you…what a feeling. You know, it’s not every day that someone jumps off a cliff.”
The Climbing Curve
The word “extreme” entered the pop culture vocabulary to define an elite class of adventure athletes in the ’80s, a decade witness to tremendous advances in lightweight fiber technology that revolutionized skiing, climbing and other adventure sports. But as with so many other things co-opted by advertisers the world over, by the ’90s “extreme” was being used to define an endless variety of the world’s hokiest and least extreme products. Dannon’s Extreme Yogurt Combo Pack or Taco Bell’s Extreme Burrito are the first to come to mind, and the word quickly became meaningless with overuse, eventually inspiring more snide comments than classic, mid-’80s neon-colored ski wear. For most, the only “extreme” aspect of a Taco Bell meal is realized in post-meal “shock and awe” sessions in the bathroom.
And while I’d select a “smooth ’n’ creamy” yogurt before one called “extreme” any day, there are activities that more than merit the title. Like the adventure sports of climbing, kayaking and backcountry skiing playing themselves out on Montana’s overhung spires, raging rivers and slide-prone chutes.
Adding to the pull, nearly all these feats are documented on high-end video gear, providing annual crops of adrenaline flicks and Mountain Dew commercials that inspire us to go get our own biggest air. Celluloid reproductions of 100-foot waterfall drops, solo climbs up once “unclimbable” faces and skiers linking airs in do-or-die cliff bands have become standard fare for millions of American armchair adventurers.
But for many, the most extreme—and limiting—aspects of becoming a climber able to live another day can be just affording the gear required to keep your feet off the ground. These bare-minimum but necessary tools—a harness, shoes, a rope, a few dozen carabiners, a few dozen slings and a well-hung rack of nuts, cams and other gear—will set a brother back about a grand, assuming that he’s purchasing new gear. Climbers’ lives often depend on their rope being attached to the rock with a single $6 chunk of aluminum and a $4 nylon sling, and most climbers choose to buy new gear instead of saving a few bucks on questionable second-hand equipment, though exceptions do exist.
Fortunately, you don’t have to invest in a full rack to enter the vertical world. Many climbers (myself included) spend their first few years of climbing learning the ropes with just five items that a sharp-eyed and frugal shopper can purchase for less than $150. With nothing but climbing shoes, a harness, a belay device and a locking carabiner, an educated-but-beginning climber can “second,” or “clean,” a route already climbed by the leader.
There are basically two tried-and-true avenues for neophytes to enter the vertical world: go with buddies, or pay a professional to get you high.
For most, the safest and most convenient route to learning the basics of knot-tying, climbing technique and the ins and outs of staying safe in the airy environ is to enroll in a local rock-climbing course. There are plenty of qualified organizations, including the University of Montana’s Outdoor Rec. program (243-5172), The Missoula Rock Garden (728-0714), Bitterroot Mountain Guides (543-9522) or Missoula Parks and Rec. (542-7275). Some of the region’s most dedicated rock junkies get their in-town rocks off by working as instructors, so don’t hesitate to grill them about their experience before trusting them to the braking end of the rope.
The second option for budding wall rats is to hang out with climbers who already have the gear, experience and patience to pass along their knowledge. Although it’s potentially more risky, this route can save novices loads of money, lets you to spend time in the mountains with folks you already know and trust, and allows for the one-on-one attention that can move you from being a top-roper to being a lead climber quite quickly.
Keep in mind that life-or-death decisions are made every day you’re out on the rock, so choose your partners carefully, scrupulously check/double check all your knots, and examine gear and ropes carefully before trusting them.
But once you’re past the initial Darwinian fears that keep people from scrambling about in dangerous situations, a whole new world will open up. Immediately, the massive granite walls that line the hiking trails of Bitterroot canyons lose their imposing nature and become inviting pitches, full of crack-riddled possibilities. The funky Joshua Tree rock formations that line I-90 near Butte’s Homestake Pass start looking less like gnome homes and more like The Ideal Place to Spend Your Weekend. And that road from Missoula to the glorious desert sandstone in Utah suddenly appears much, much shorter.
The wind beneath your wing
Though a little less banzai than skydiving, the term paragliding still has a very nice shape to it, streamlined and buoyant. Experienced paragliders, however, sometimes use another word to describe what they do.
“Parawaiting,” chuckles Todd Onken, squinting across the canyon at a windsock flapping on Mount Sentinel. It’s been touch and go all weekend for Todd and his wife Andy, with cold temperatures, little sun and mostly unfavorable winds to beckon them up their backyard paragliding hill for a launch. Halfway through the hike up Mount Jumbo, the Onkens are scanning signs around the valley—a bird wheeling lazily around Hellgate Canyon, the column of smoke rising from the mill in Frenchtown fifteen miles to the west—and deciding whether it’s worth climbing all the way to the ridgeline.
Missoula weather is so variable, the Onkens tell me, that local paragliders have to be even more patient than their colleagues in other locales (some areas of Utah, for example, get around 300 consistently “soarable” days per year), and also more willing to hike back down when conditions demand it. Todd and Andy used to launch only about half the time they made the climb up Jumbo with their wings stuffed into 40- to 45-pound packs. They’ve gotten better at reading the signs, though, and now it’s more like four times out of five.
Todd Onken, a smokejumper foreman who started paragliding in 1988, keeps up a running commentary about the history and physics of sport aviation all the way from Prescott Elementary to the top of Jumbo. The sport, he says, has evolved rapidly since French climbers in the late ’80s figured out that they could pull skydiving canopies over their heads, step off a mountain and take a short cut back to town instead of making the arduous descent on foot.
“That was the earliest idea,” says Onken. “But what happened then was that people started realizing that instead of just being a way to get down, it was actually more fun to try and stay up.”
First to evolve were the gliders themselves, now vastly improved in both safety and performance from the days—now barely 15 years ago—when one honest manufacturer went a step further than labeling requirements demanded and embellished the standard warning label on its equipment with skull and crossbones. Todd Onken laughs when he remembers those gliders—maybe because he never owned one himself.
“My first and second gliders, and Andy’s first glider, were all modified skydiving canopies,” Onken says. “They were very stable, but they didn’t have a very good glide ratio or a very good sink rate compared to what we have now. We had to fly them in stronger winds, but we didn’t really have to worry about them collapsing on us. With some of those other earlier ones, though, that was something you had to worry about.”
Glide ratio is measured in the number of feet the glider moves forward for every vertical foot it sinks. As manufacturers began improving their designs, gliders took on a wider “aspect ratio,” longer from wingtip to wingtip and shorter from front to back—a design that gives the glider its optimal glide ratio of about eight feet forward for every vertical foot of drop in still air.
“With skydiving canopies you’re lucky to have a three-to-one glide ratio,” Onken says. “The very best hang gliders are up there around fourteen-to-one, the very best sail planes about forty-to-one.
Eight-to-one still gives us paragliders the chance to cover a lot of ground. We can go all over the place looking for lift before we’ve sunk out.”
Lift, of course, is key to paragliding. The signs the Onkens look for portend good “ridge-lift,” a steady breeze blowing up-slope at between ten and twelve miles per hour. Even better would be thermals, columns of warm air rising through surrounding cooler air from sun-warmed asphalt, houses and rock outcroppings. With cyclic patterns of thermals to keep the glider aloft, hour-and-a-half to two-hour flights are not uncommon. It would be nice, says Todd Onken, strapping himself into the nylon web harness, to get up there and fly around until he’s tired or cold or bored or until the sun sets.
But today it’s not happening. With no thermals to ride, Todd’s tandem flight with fellow smokejumper and photographer Wayne Williams lasts less than ten minutes from the ridgeline to the landing zone on level ground at the base of Mount Jumbo, a drop of about a thousand vertical feet. Andy, launching solo, fares a little better, but not much.
Still, they say when I catch up with them after my solo descent on foot, the shortest and least eventful flight is still more fun than the alternative.
“It’s like Wayne says,” Todd Onkin tells me with a grin. “It’s better than walking.”
And the meek shall go fly a kite…
Climbing hundred-foot cliffs or leaping off them with a big nylon sock for support isn’t for everyone—and contrary to the Hollywood message fed to us in movies like Extreme Ops and Vertical Limit, it’s not for most. Sure, we’ll pick up the Indy and get a peek at the thrills, but most of us won’t muster the grit or money it takes to get truly radical. And for those of us short on courage and/or funds, there’s always the Target bargain bin and a $4.99 kite.
In our Mountain Dew-soaked, base-jumping, high-wire-walking, razor-blade-swallowing high-octane world, taking a kite out for a whirl can seem pretty damn lame. It’s certainly not scaling rock or falling to near death, but it can be just as extreme (in a Zen Buddhist sort of way). When you think about it, kite flying isn’t really that different from Western Montana’s most popular inner-peace bringing activity—fly fishing. Both offer a chance to relax, commune with nature and practice mindfulness. And in fact, some historians believe that kites were first used by the indigenous people of the South Sea Islands to fish—the idea being that you can reel in the whoppers you can’t cast far enough to reach by attaching bait to the tail of a kite.
Having never fly fished, but having always wanted to be part of that soulful crew, I took my idea that the two sports were governed by the same fundamental principle to local fly fishers to see if there was anything to it. At the first shop I walked into I got only a few nibbles.
“Sure, that’s how kites were first used,” said a big, smiling angler. “People on the Soloman Islands still use the technique to fish.”
Encouraged, I asked him if this meant that both sports elicit that same indescribable but identifiable feeling.
“Yeah, I’d say I get the same feeling fly fishing as someone might flying a kite,” he said. “But it’s also probably that same feeling that the guy in his basement gets from running trains. They’re all hobbies and people can get this feeling from hobbies, but I can only fly a kite for about a minute and thirty seconds before I’m bored to tears, and I couldn’t even last that long on a model train. But I can fly fish for six hours.”
At a second shop, I received an even less encouraging response.
“A link?” the man asked.
“Yeah, is there some sort of philosophical link between the two?”
“I don’t really know what you mean.”
“Well, are they governed by the same axiom? Do people do them for the same reason?”
“I’m not really sure I see what you’re getting at.”
“I guess I’m just wondering if there is any connection at all?”
“I’m not really sure.”
From the few others I was brave enough to ask, I got the same response. I didn’t understand why no one could see it. Watching a class practice the fluid motion of casting with serene concentration in the UM oval, then seeing a five-year-old softly bite his lip with focus as he struggled to keep his American eagle kite aloft, I saw a link. I was about to abandon my search for evidence, when I ran across MSU-Billings art professor and kite maker John Pollock.
“Like many people involved in kiting, I made and flew kites as a kid,” he said. “And going into adult life, it was something that only kids did, so I left it alone. My renewed interest came about twelve years ago, and what brought me back was the new two-line and four-line stunt kites.”
Pollock was sucked in by the emerging extremity of the sport—faster, stronger, more agile kites that can fly circles around those old fashioned Ben Franklin models. But Pollock’s love affair with stunt kites was short-lived. After his reintroduction, he was quickly drawn to traditional Asian kite designs. Pollock joined the American Kite Flyers Association and began using his art skills to come up with his own designs. It was after he started building and flying his own designs that he saw the link to fly fishing.
“I’ve used the analogy of fishing and kites before, particularly if you think of catch-and-release fly fishing,” he said. “They both take a craft, as far the tools you use; they both take a skill, as far as the handling of those tools; and they are both basically non-destructive. Many of the people I know in kiting are also into fly fishing.”
And Pollock definitely believes that kite flying and fly fishing generate the same unique feeling. But it is the labor-of-love aspect in which Pollock finds the deepest connection. Tying flies can be like painting a kite, and crafting a rod can be like designing a kite, he said.
“One of the recent things I’ve done is go back to traditional materials like paper and bamboo for my kites,” said Pollock. “One of the sources I’ve found for bamboo is actually a bamboo [fly fishing] rod maker.”
Most of us probably don’t plan on building $1,000 kites like Pollock, but that doesn’t have to keep us from enjoying the serenity provided by even the lowliest bargain bin specials. Anglers may cry foul when we say we’re tapping into their source of inner-peace; climbers may mock our hobby as ho-hum; even those stunt kiters will probably crash their beasts into our simple creations. But when the wind’s at twelve m.p.h. and temperature’s a nice 68, we’ll be flying high.