The 12-Step-off-a-Cliff Program

Thanks to improved safety standards and tandem flights, scores of acrophobes are giving hang gliding a second wind. And now, they're soaring in style—over the Golden Gate Bridge.

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HI. MY NAME is Brad. I’m six feet, seven inches tall—and I’m afraid of heights.

No, really.

It’s not a paralyzing fear. I’m able to keep the panic in check so long as I have an immediate goal. Yet going up, time and again, only reinforces what I already know: I’m afraid of coming down. And when I stare into an abyss—lying on my belly, peering over the brink of Yosemite’s Half Dome, say—a different sort of swoon seizes me. I feel drawn over the edge, as if the void were calling me. It’s not a death wish; I am petrified by the impulse. But it won’t be blinked away, this seductive urge to let go and fly.

To deal with my fear, I have, over the years, devised my own acrophobia-recovery scheme. I’ve let friends take me up the odd Bay Area bridge tower. Twice, I tried bungee jumping, and while both jumps gave me an inkling of what it was like to let gravity have its way with me, only at the very top of a bungee bounce—weightless for an instant—did I get a sense of what it might be like to fly.

Then a friend turned me on to tandem hang gliding. Often marketed as “discovery flights”—designed to give youa taste of flight, and help you determine whether or not you want to sign up for the dozen-odd courses you’ll need tobecome a certified novice, and oh, yes, buy a new $1,500–$3,000 entry-level rig—these introductory lessons are bringing hang gliding and paragliding to the masses as never before. Some 40 percent of the United States Hang Gliding Association’s 10,000 members joined in the past two years. Fueled by Web marketing, tandem flights and solo aerotowing (in which an ultralight plane tows a hang glider heavenward) have given rise to what association president David Glover describes as a nationwide renaissance.

Improved safety hasn’t hurt either. “In the early years, it was like war,” says Chris Wills, 49, who with his brother Bobby flew the nation’s first foot-launched tandem wing off Palmdale, California’s Delta Hill in 1973. Chris, now an orthopedic surgeon in the nearby town of Orange, eventually lost not one but two brothers (including Bobby) to crashes. “There were about 40 pilots in the first U.S. Hang Gliding Championship,” Wills says. “A few years later, about half of them were gone. But the technology today is vastly improved. It’s a much, much safer sport now.” Indeed, in 1976 alone, 38 American pilots “augered in” (that is, bought the farm); in 2000 there were just two hang-gliding fatalities.

You don’t have to tell Bodhi Kroll that the sport is booming. The founder of the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center (; 510-528-2300) watched his revenues quadruple in his second year and double in each of the two years since. He now has five pilots working year-round. And after finally securing permits from the Coast Guard and the FAA, as well as various municipal bodies, Kroll’s firm began offering the first tandem flights over San Francisco Bay last September, in a $23,000 “Apache Trike”—an engine-equipped glider designed to take off and land on water—built by Kamron Blevins of North Wing Design in Wenatchee, Washington. Unlike conventional wings, the Apache Trike does not require constant dismantling and assembly; between flights Kroll and his team dock it at a nearby marina, allowing them to complete as many as 20 flights on a good day. February offers fewer flying days than most months, Kroll says, but when the rain does retreat it often leaves behind afternoons of cotton-candy cumulus and blustery winds that can keep the wing airborne for 30 minutes at a stretch.

Hearing last summer that this was in the works and that I might buzz the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, I resolved to take my vertigo shock therapy in a new direction: straight up, over the waters of northern California.

OK, SO IT wasn’t that funny at first. The pontoon flights over the bay were, at that point, still snarled in red tape, so I signed on for one of the more traditional run-off-a-cliff jobbers. From the town of Stinson Beach, ten miles up the coast from San Francisco, it’s only a five-minute switchbacked drive up the western flank of 2,572-foot Mount Tamalpais, the highest point in Marin County, to the launch point. And five minutes is not a great deal of time to get to know a man you’re about to entrust with your life. Raised in Berkeley, Kroll’s first and middle names are Bodhi Dharma—after a Buddhist who achievedenlightenment but forsook nirvana to be reincarnated as a teacher. Good juju, I decide. A pilot for 17 years, the 35-year-old Kroll apprenticed as an instructor at the Sydney Hang Gliding Centre, in Australia. When he smiles, I’m convinced I’m in good hands. He still has all his front teeth.

We pull into a trailhead parking lot on Mount Tam’s Bolinas Ridge. Our launchpad is a rounded outcropping about 50 feet down the slope, with a drop sufficient for us to run off, gain lift, and clear the tall pines below. I walk across the road to get a glimpse of where I’m going, and take in a sweeping view of Stinson Beach. We watch a quick instructional video on a portable television. It’s no great shakes, but it lets me know what to expect. I am to run alongside Kroll, straight off the ridge. I’m not to grab the tubes of the glider’s frame at any time; that could throw the craft out of balance. After signing a few waivers, I stuff myself into my harness—a vest for my torso and stirrups for my knees, to winch my legs up parallel with the wing once we’re airborne. On account of my height, Kroll tells me, I’ll have to keep running after his feet have left the ground. He jokes that given my size—together we’ll be more than 12 and a half feet and more than 400 pounds of human cargo—our flight should be “interesting.” He stops laughing when he sees my face fall. “No, it’s going to be great,” he says. “You want it to be interesting!”

It’s true. Thank Buddha, there are more instructions to distract me. They reel through my brain on an infinite loop of nervous energy, which keeps me from focusing too hard on the fact that in a few moments I’ll be soaring thousands of feet above the earth with a grinning bald man I barely know. I will ride next to Kroll, not behind him. I will be clipped into the hang glider with my right hand on his left shoulder. I will keep my body inside the metal triangle that extends down from the wing; should I stray beyond it, my weight could throw us horribly off-kilter. I flash on Darth Vader spinning into space—no, I will be fine.

We take one practice sprint. Then we run for real. My pulse pounds in my chest, throat, and ears. It feels like I have several hearts, each beating at a pressure point.

The moment we lift off and clear the trees is, as I expected, terrifying. The scramble to get situated in the rig feels like tacking a sailboat—albeit two thousand feet above terra firma—but there’s barely time to register the terror before we’re soaring up and out and I feel… wonderful. Incredibly secure.

A minute out, Kroll asks me how I’m doing. When I tell him great, he lowers the steering bar a notch and we scream straight for a stand of tall trees, pulling up—wuuuuuuh—with plenty of time to spare.

A few more minutes and our Batman shadow slips high over California 1 and the Pacific Ocean just beyond. It is from this very vantage point, three weeks after my flight, that Kroll will spot an eight-foot great white pushing through the sea just beyond the breakers. But there are no sharks today, only bewildered beachcombers, who start to scatter as we approach our beach landing strip. Kroll yells at them not to move. Though he’s never hit anyone on landing, people, like startled deer, could run directly into the flight path.

We touch down without braining anyone and come to a painless stop in a spray of sand. I’m completely giddy. No doubt about it: I’ll be back for the Apache Trike. I was meant to fly.

FACT  The first successful manned flight of the Rogallo wing, the prototype for today’s hang gliders, took place just south of Sydney, Australia, in 1963, when John Dickenson flew one off the back of a boat. The cost him $33 to build.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Black kids have had few heroes in the great outdoors. Until now.

IF 31-YEAR-OLD Elliott Boston climbs the Seven Summits, he won’t be the first. (That was Dick Bass, back in 1985.) Nor will he be the youngest. (See Japanese climber Ken Noguchi, age 25.) Or the speediest. (Seven months from first ascent to last: New Zealanders Rob Hall and Gary Ball.) Or the slowest. (American Eric Simonson took 25 years.) But if he can tick off McKinley, Cartensz, Vinson, Kilimanjaro, and Everest in the next 17 months—he already topped out on Russia’s Mount Elbrus last August and he hopes to summit Aconcagua in late February—he will be the first African-American to reach the milestone. By day a credit analyst from Orange County, California, Boston has been climbing for only eight years, so this isn’t about challenging Ed Viesturs to a race up the Hillary Step. (On 18,510-foot Elbrus, he relied on guides.) “When you look at the history of African-Americans in the outdoors, you find Matthew Henson,” he says, referring to the man who conquered the North Pole with Robert Peary in 1909. “But otherwise this area is untouched. This is all about showing minority kids that there’s someone like them out there climbing.” Look for Boston at Everest base camp in May 2002. And soon after, his mug on a billboard near you.


The last word in clogs for jocks

Go figure. Having borne for a thousand years the same relationship to fashion that the tater has to gastronomy, the lowly clog is now the hottest ticket in jockware. Merrell Performance Footwear has sold more than a million slip-ons since launching its line in May 2000, and most every other outdoor footwear firm, from Vasque to Salomon, offers clogs this season for your every need. But one company is poking fun at the backless fad. Last fall, technical-boot purveyor Montrail unveiled the world’s first mountaineering clog. The VerClog, according to marketing director Boo Turner, is a Montrail Verglas technical alpine boot surgically altered by a cobbler. “It has a classic wood lasting board, so it’s completely rigid for technical ascents and crampon techniques, such as frontpointing,” she says. For reasons of public safety it’s probably a good thing that (1) the VerClog is actually a spoof, (2) there’s only one pair, and (3) it isn’t for sale. On the other hand, it’s a pity: If the current footwear mania reaches its inevitable conclusion and clog dancing sweeps the après-ski scene, the VerClog would kick some serious butt.

Wave of the Furture

SURFERS HAVE LONG PRAYED to Mother Nature for heavenly waves. Some have even burned boards on sacrificial beach bonfires. But this winter, one SoCal environmental group is placing its hopes in the power of human ingenuity.

Back in September, members of the Surfrider Foundation lowered 120 fourteen-ton sandbags off a barge anchored at Dockweiler State Beach near LAX. Their goal: the nation’s first artificial reef designed to jack up surfable waves. Nobody knows how well the fake break will work, but the big test is expected in January and February. If the planet does what it’s done for the last few eons, powerful northern Pacific storms will crank out stacks of swells that will speed across the ocean and eventually spill over the seven-foot-deep reef as though it were a natural sandbar, hopefully creating perfect A-frame peaks on top. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” says Pratte’s Reef designer David Skelly, a coastal engineer and owner of Skelly Engineering. “But I know it’s going to produce a surfable wave.”

Whether the waves show up or not, a government ruling that helped finance the reef has already made environmental history. In the mid-1980s, the California Coastal Commission, a state regulatory agency, allowed Chevron to build an oil-pipeline jetty off the town of El Segundo, but told the company it would have to make amends if the project diminished local waves. In 1994, the commission decided it had, and the oil company paid Surfrider $300,000. Pratte’s Reef is the result. “This means that waves deserve the same protection as redwood trees,” says Surfrider executive director Christopher Evans.

The group has opted to study Pratte’s cultural and environmental impacts before pursuing any additional reef projects. Skelly, however, sees a day when fake breaks dot the globe. Two others, installed last year at Narrowneck on Australia’s Gold Coast and in 1999 at Cables Station on Australia’s West Coast, are performing with mixed results. But Skelly, an avid surfer, is still stoked. “This takes surfing into the 21st century,” he says. “It allows us to consider making surf spots that mimic classic breaks like Pipeline and Malibu. It opens a whole new field of opportunity for the sport.”

Unsafe at Any Speed

They raised the walls and smoothed out the bumps, but the Lake Placid bobsled and luge track is still one very wild ride

IN MID-FEBRUARY, all eyes in the international luge and bobsled community will focus on the Luge World Cup finals in Lake Placid, New York. More to the point, they’ll zero in on the track. A year ago, when racers blasted down the new $24 million Mount Hoevenberg course for the first time at the Goodwill Games, spectators could have been excused for thinking they were watching NASCAR on ice. U.S. luge veteran Tony Benshoof entered a corner too low, hung one runner over the lip, and nearly launched into the bordering pine trees. Eight of 30 men crashed—though none was hospitalized—and five top lugers refused to race at all, fearing they’d flip at 80 mph and, sliding out of control, burn through their Lycra suits. (Olympic champion George Hackl of Germany went so far as to tell the Salt Lake Tribune that the best thing to do with the track was tear it down.) “Some of the tracks, you gotta make something out of nothing for commentary,” says John Morgan, a former bobsled brakeman and the color commentator for the last five winter Olympics. “But not this track. It’s a man-versus-mountain kind of track.” This year, after a few upgrades, the ice will be smoother, the walls will be a foot higher, and the racers will be better prepared. But the track will be what it was: one of the hardest courses on the 13-stop World Cup tour. Above, a taste of what lugers will face when they fling themselves off the start handles.

…And All I Got Was This Lousy Prosthetic Foot

How an around-the-world cycling tour went very, very wrong

THE BROCHURE must have read like grade-A bike-tour porn: 366 days, 20,000 miles, 45 countries. Droool.

But in October, with several thousand miles still to go, the wheels came off Odyssey 2000, and organizer Tim Kneeland, founder of Seattle-based outfitter Tim Kneeland & Associates, declared that the around-the-world jaunt had run out of cash. Citing air-transportation costs, he asked the tour’s 247 riders—each of whom had paid up to $36,000 to sign on—to cough up another $3,000 a head to finish the tour.

For many, it was the last straw. In Italy, for example, Kneeland had told riders they’d, uh, have to keep their wet clothes on for another few days because the gear trucks had been temporarily abandoned for lack of insurance. Not counting the multiple broken bones and one amputation (a lower leg, removed following a brush with a semi in Sweden), the low point came when riders arrived in Japan—sans bikes—and spent nine days riding from campsite to campsite in a bus. (Kneeland blames Malaysian Airlines for the snafu). “I could not give him any more money on principle,” says Gerry Rolfsen, a 62-year-old retired architect from Nova Scotia, who hopped a flight home. An estimated 60 riders paid the $3,000 transportation surcharge—as allowed for in the contract—but at press time around 190 had opted to cut their losses and bail out.

Many accuse Kneeland of poor planning (the disgruntled have rallied at a Web site,, but he chalks up the debacle to an unforeseeable increase in air-fuel costs—and more than a few bad attitudes. “For some, it was not as much fun as they expected,” he says. “They weren’t prepared to rough it. A few seemed to expect five-star hotels.” For that you’d presumably have had to pay an arm and a leg.

The Second Cold War?

THOSE NUTTY RUSSIANS. Who else would try to jump-start a half-frozen body with a hypo full of EDTA—a white crystalline acid commonly used to treat lead poisoning and known around most households as good old-fashioned sodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate? Kyrill Ivanov, a researcher at St. Petersburg’s Pavlov Institute of Physiology, claims he has discovered a method of resuscitating hypothermic subjects without rewarming their bodies. By injecting his patients—thus far, very pissed-off rabbits and rats, chilled in ice water—with EDTA, Ivanov managed to flush the excess calcium that builds up in cold-weakened cells and restart the shivering reflex. But Ken Zafren, a member of the board of the Wilderness Medical Society, is skeptical about EDTA’s efficacy with humans. “Whenever you move important electrolytes around the body, it could have unintended consequences,” he says. Still, if Ivanov’s hoped-for human trials pan out, a syringe of EDTA may one day join that space blanket in your winter survival kit. Or nyet.

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