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Urban Jungle

I recently rediscovered a bike path near my house that runs along Crosscut Canal, part of a network of 131 miles of canals and 924 miles of ditches that crisscross the Phoenix valley. The canals route irrigation water from the Salt River whose source is 200 miles northeast in the Arizona White Mountains. Hohokam Indians originally created canals as part of an elaborate system when they inhabited the area for about about twelve hundred years from 300 to 1500 A.D. Although they left the area 500 years ago, the early pioneers used some of the same pathways to bring water back to the Phoenix valley. After drought and management problems, eventually the federal government purchased the private canals in the Phoenix area and constructed the Roosevelt Dam and associated Roosevelt Lake Reservoir. Over the years three additional major reservoirs were created: Apache Lake, Saguaro Lake, and Canyon Lake, all nestled in the rugged Salt River Canyon east of Phoenix.

All of this was unknown to me, as I, years later, pulled out my dusty rollerblades and took them for a spin on the Crosscut Canal bike path. It had been a few years since I last donned my skates. And so after work, with temperatures ranging from 100 to 115, I started skating a couple times a week as an alternative to running or hiking. I wait until sunset so that the sun isn’t baking me along the way. It’s hot, but bearable. The four mile canal runs south from Scottsdale and quickly escapes the urban vibe and hustle and bustle of the grid that defines Phoenix as it passes through more natural desert surroundings and the small but striking red sandstone Papago Mountains.

Near dusk one evening, after entering the more natural part of the trail, I notice tiny squirmy things darting horizontally across the path. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks in the low light, but when I slowed, I could see they were tiny baby geckos quickly running into the bushes along the path. In this one stretch there must have been hundreds of baby geckos, so I did my best to slow down and make sound so they would evade my rolling wheels. Further along I encountered several huge, colorful, lizards were also enjoying the residual warmth of the path. Not as quick, they also boogied into the shrubs as I approached.

Another canal visitor, the cliff swallow, swarms over the canal in the hundreds, darting to-and-fro in search of insects. They agilely fly behind and in front of me, unaffected by my presence.

Approaching my turn-around point, I see a large jackrabbit with huge ears bounding through the desert. No sooner did I pass the hare then I look up and see what looked like an owl sitting casually on a telephone line overlooking a golf course. It was so still in the low light, I couldn’t tell if it was real. It had magnificent “horns” on its head, meaning it was a Great Horned Owl. Finally it rotated its horned head. I was thrilled.

Taking in twilight over the expansive Phoenix valley, I headed back. A mama duck and her ducklings were happily paddling up the canal. Finally, one last critter made an appearance: a black, red, and white snake slowly crossing the bike path. In an “S” configuration, his progress across the concrete was slow, but once he got to the rough desert floor, his body could take advantage of a little pebble sticking in the ground to push off and accelerate straight into the chaparral.

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Desert Bloom

Much like South Sudan, my brother’s temporary home, the Arizona desert has a rainy season, though with less verdant and life giving results. The desert monsoon season in Phoenix — running July through September — is a mixed bag of blustery dust storms and occasional torrential rain showers, but the most common outcome is everything covered with a layer of dust. When I lived in Tucson, the monsoon meant rain,  inches (or at least half inches) that left the streets flooded with a warm river half a foot deep. I would run outside and marvel at the downpours and take pictures of lightning miles away.

This year in Phoenix something’s amis. We’re getting normal dust storms, but also true dousings, sometimes 2-3 a week. It’s rained in the middle of the night two times in a row. It’s unheard of. On July 4th, rain and clouds resulted in a record 85 degree high day, cooler than the normal low temperature in the middle of the night. I’ve never experienced such a thing in summer.

Yet it’s still hot. Today’s high was 113, and it’s still 100 now at 10pm. So I’ve headed out of town a few times to cool off and go hiking.

North

Two hours north at 7000 feet elevation and on the southern edge of the Colorado plateau, Flagstaff is a great summer reprieve nestled in the largest Ponderosa pine stand in the world, but also home to quaking aspen, white pine, Douglas fir, white fir. Arriving in Flagstaff, the scent of warm pine greets. Sticking your nose in the bark of a Ponderosa pine reveals vanilla, butterscotch, and other fragrant notes. Evidently as Ponderosas age the bark turns from black to yellow and emanates these homey scents.

Aspen

Flagstaff has the highest peak in Arizona at 12,600 feet and is home to the only alpine tundra in Arizona. The San Francisco Peaks were named in the 17th century by Franciscan priests at a Hopi Indian mission. It is believed that the mountain was originally 16,000 to 20,000 feet tall but blew its top leaving the smaller mountain today. Small as it is, I’ve only hiked to the top once at the expense of a terrible altitude headache, so this trip I planned only to go to Agassiz Saddle, 800 feet below the summit.

View of monsoon rains from Agassiz Saddle

The trail head starts at the base of Arizona Snow Bowl skiing slope, now rocky and green with alpine grass. It’s a cool 80 degrees. The hike to the saddle is an invigorating 3.5 mile, 3000 foot climb following a series of long switchbacks winding steeper up the mountain. At the saddle above the tree line, a 55 degree wind whips up the north slope, and I’m cold in the middle of summer. In the distance monsoon clouds are gathering on the Colorado plateau. I enjoy this time far away from the desert heat. Heading back down, a monsoon mist falls. At the trail head the rain is picking up. Soon it will pour on the mountain.

South

Taking another leave of absence from Phoenix, I head south to Tucson for the cafes and another favorite hike, this time an hour south in the Santa Rita Mountains, also named by Franciscan missionaries. Madera canyon is the entry point to outdoor activities and is a premier birding location in the US. History tells of commercial lumbering (Madera is Spanish for lumber) and then occupation by the Apache during the civil war, who were later ousted by mineral (mostly copper and gold) prospectors. You can see sealed mines on the hike.

Old Baldy trail starts at 5400 feet and winds its way through Sonoran desert flora and transitions to gambel oak, maple, Ponderosa pine. It’s warm and I’m sweating all the way. At 7100 feet, Josephine Saddle marks the passing of three boy scouts in 1958 with a wooden memorial sign, a cairn of rocks, and Mexican prayer candles. Josephine saddle splits the two main peaks of the Santa Ritas, my destination, Mt Wrightson (Baldy Peak), and Mt Hopkins, home of the Smithsonian Whipple Observatory.

Santa Rita bloom

I’ve got two more miles to Baldy Saddle. Along the way I pass a sea of wildflowers and the buzzing of thousands of bees, bugs, and butterflies. All of the monsoon rain has brought a second spring in August. Another mile push past the saddle and I’m on Baldy peak named for its rocky formation that affords a 360 degree view at 9400 feet. Lady bugs alight here for some reason. I eat my lunch, my bag of chips inflated due to the low pressure. The flies are incessant, so I don’t dally on the peak.

I’ve hiked this mountain about 20 or more times and it takes a definite commitment to reach the summit. Physically, however, the descent down the unrelenting rocky terrain gives my legs and feet a beating. Two miles from the trail head I have to try to distract myself from the aches and pains. Yet somehow it’s still worth it.

For years I’ve wondered how many steps this 11 mile hike takes. I finally count out a mile and do the math: 27,000.

Back home

300 = 500 miles = 4 hours

Jump 300

Jump 300: Hanging out with friends

Milestones are a funny thing, made up by our human minds to be somehow meaningful. We count, we measure distance, we tick off time. And so I cross the arbitrary milestones of 300 jumps, 500 miles, and 4 hours of free fall time.

Beyond these numbers, it’s been a journey into an entirely unknown world, only two miles above the ground but in a direction normally thought of as a way to see blue sky, clouds, planes, planets, and stars. Who knew you could experience it as a solo temporary visitor or a group of kids playing in a floating playground? In the last year and a half I’ve jumped in Arizona, Virginia, Germany, Switzerland, and at Burning Man. When I think about it, it doesn’t compute as a truly possible thing. It’s like I’ve been granted a privilege that few will ever try or know the joy of.

Besides the addiction that brings me back every week, there’s always more play to do or more stuff to practice. Last weekend I spent Saturday doing “4-way formation” training. Six jumps with two other students and my favorite instructor Brianne. Each jump focused on three formations in a sequence, such as O-7-Q or P-2-B or M-D-21, where each letter corresponds to the name of a specific formation such as Satellite, Side Buddies, Phalanx, Sidebody, Stairstep Diamond, Star, Yuan, Zig Zag, Marquis.

Satellite (O) Formation Exit (counter-clockwise: Brianne, me, Lori, David)

The goal of each jump in formation skydiving is to exit the plane in the first formation, say “O” (satellite), then transition to the next formation, “7” (which is side-buddies, do a 360, come back to side-buddies), then transition to “Q” (phalanx) and back to the first formation again continuing in a cycle. In competition, each successful formation is a “point” and teams are judged on how many points they can turn in 30 seconds. For our training we get about 60 seconds of free fall to take our time and get our formations and transitions right. If all goes well we turn 6-8 points, for example, two full cycles of O-7-Q. Professional teams turn 20-30 points in 30 seconds. Clearly we are mere babes in this world.

Zig Zag

Zig Zag Formation

We have a dedicated “video flyer,” John, who films us from above. John loves to jump as much as we do. Post jump, Brianne deftly debriefs us with the video offering coaching and pointers. We almost always improve from one jump to the next. The day flies by and we’re done by one o’clock when the air starts to get wonky with thermals and dust devils.

(Video: 4-way Training)

Star

Star (M) Formation

Sunday is all play.

Angela had been wanting to do a “bagel jump” for a while, but it hadn’t happened. I picked up some bagels in the morning hoping to make it a go. I break open the bagels, and Matt and Angela are already putting them in their full face helmets, smashing the bagels in between their helmet and faces. We work out that we will have a piece in our helmets and try to eat while in free fall while passing a full bagel back and forth.

(Video: Bagel Jump)

Bagel Jump

Bagel Jump Wearing Angela’s Rig

My main goal of the day was to get a video for Father’s Day. I enlist a couple other friends to film me with a sign. They are not the fliers that Matt and Angela are, and combined with my botched exit, there are only a few seconds of video. My grand plan was less than perfect, but I hope the sentiment got across. Love you Dad!

Happy Fathers Day!

Happy Fathers Day!

Meet the Flockers

Most of skydiving seems to be about free fall. Fact is, it’s only 1/4 of the time, the other 3/4 being under canopy. My favorite coach Brianne and her partner Nik put on a free “canopy flocking” coaching day for anyone wishing to attend. I’m one of a rare group that likes the parachute ride and wants to learn more about it. I’d already done several one-on-one flights with Nik that were really cool.

Saturday the day before, I meet with Bill, who likes CRW (canopy relative work) even more than I do, to practice and play. We set up some ground rules since we’ve never flown together before. Although touching canopies (on the sides) is generally okay, I veto that for this jump. In fact in CRW, experts will actually “dock” on other canopies to make static formation. We also don’t go for that.

Neighborly Jumper Joe

We get out and open at 13,000 feet which gives us 13 minutes of canopy flying time. I follow Bill and chase him down. His canopy is “trimmed” steeper so I’m generally above him for most of the jump. I can modulate our relationship somewhat by pulling on the right part of the controls. It’s a fun time, and on the ground Bill says “Man you fly that thing awesome!” I really didn’t believe him, “Are you sure?” (Our jump is first part of video until 1:41)

Sunday, a group of 13 meets for the flocking day. Brianne and Nik break us into three flocking groups based on experience level, canopy type, and wing loading. On the first jump I’m designated as “base” in my group of four because I have some experience. I’m a little disappointed because you don’t get to do much but set the speed and direction of the flock. I’m also a little nervous because I’m somewhat in charge.

I’m first out the door (at 1:42)  and give a good delay time before opening since ideally I should be below and behind everyone else as this gives them a chance to steer into their “slot” in our small V formation. I simply follow the line of the plane and wait for them to come to me. (you can see the first person opening in front of me at 1:54.) Several minutes later and we are a loose group with coach circling above in orange. Unfortunately we lost one of our flock since her canopy took a long time to open and she ended up a few hundred feet below us. I tried to bring the group down several times by pulling on the front risers (at 2:24; you can see her in the orangish canopy in the bottom right.) We had a nice flock of 3 or so at all times.

For the second jump a few members are swapped between groups to make ours a 5-way flock. I get slot 4, second to the right of the base, and as such I’m 4th out of the plane. I open right out the door so I’m pretty high above the base. It takes me all of 5 minutes to finally figure out how to ease into my slot (at 4:00 in video) without overshooting or going too low (which is unrecoverable). By that time we’d already lost three of our flock due to errors in judgment on approach of the formation. It’s just the base (Dave), coach (Brianne), and me. We fly in formation for awhile, then Brianne breaks off (at 4:55). Evidently she had been trying to communicate to Dave to turn back to the drop zone. I missed the signal too. The two of us continue to fly together. At 4,000 feet I break away and signal to all with my feet and arms. We all make it back to the landing area, but just.

On the ground I forgot to turn off my video camera attached to my helmet hanging upside down off my chest strap. High fives are given, and the beautiful 90 degree day is called due to heat-induced bumpy air and dust devils.

(Best viewed in full screen and HD)

 

Flockers

Cut-away

The last few weekends I’ve been going to a different drop zone called Skydive Phoenix which is a little closer than Skydive Arizona and tiny in comparison with a very chill vibe devoid of the “sky-god” mentality that some veteran jumpers have at Skydive Arizona. They run about one plane an hour, a Cessna Grand Caravan that holds 15, borrowed for the winter from Skydive Voltige in Quebec with French writing all over it. It was Angela’s 600th jump which we celebrated by jumping another blow-up dolphin. Last time for Angela’s 500th she jumped a dolphin solo and had a fun wild spinning ride hanging from it. This time we decided to try to stabilize it with a couple people holding it while she rode it. Right out the door it popped and deflated, but Angela had thought it was hilarious and a fitting 600th.

I recently bought another canopy (an Aerodyne “Pilot”) from Matt, Angela’s boyfriend. It’s the same size as my current canopy but opens a little more “on heading” (straight) and flies with a shallower glide angle. This allows me to fly a little farther if needed. So far I’ve put about 10 jumps on it and like it, even though it’s a little more tame than my other canopy, a Performance Designs “Sabre2”.

Last Saturday I met Matt and Angela there again for some jumps. On the first jump all goes well: we get into formation, we break off, and I pull. The canopy opens fine and I look down for other canopies at about 3300 feet. When I look up at my canopy to check it (which is normal procedure), I see something weird with the lines on the right side. Shit, that doesn’t look good. I unstow the brakes and try to clear the problem by pulling on the right brake several times. It doesn’t clear the problem. Oh God, this is the real thing, this isn’t going away, it’s a real malfunction. I realize I have to cut this away and pray that my reserve works. I don’t want to do this but I have to.

I let go of the brake lines and the canopy starts spinning from the malfunction. I try pulling on the cut-away handle but it doesn’t budge. I regroup and grab with both hands. It comes free. I then pull the reserve deployment handle. In a few seconds I’m under a bright white canopy. It worked. I watch my main canopy float away as I head towards the landing area. Another relatively new jumper, CJ, follows my canopy but later gets reprimanded by an instructor due to his only having 43 jumps and inadvisablely landing out in the desert due to chasing my canopy. I’ve managed to hold on to my reserve and cut-away handles. They are about $80 each. The canopy flies sluggishly compared to my main and doesn’t turn readily. I believe it’s part of the design. But I make it easily to the landing area near Matt and Angela and the canopy flares and lands great.

I’m happy to be on the ground, emotionally worse for wear. Angela runs up and says she’s f-ing proud of me. My mind is elsewhere but she helps me re-stow my brakes which use velcro that can damage the reserve parachute lines. The reserve is 10 years old but has never been used according the previous owner. It looks spanking new.



The shuttle takes us back to the packing area, and by that time someone has graciously recovered my main and “free bag” which is attached to the spring-loaded reserve pilot chute that pulls out the reserve. I’m a bit tense but after some talk, all assure me I did the right thing. We watch my video and can clearly see the issue although no one is absolutely clear what it is. During the opening (slow motion) the right side appears to get sucked under some suspension lines. By the time it is fully open it looks like there is a tension knot involving a couple of my lines and the right side of the canopy. The jury is still out on what it actually was or if my packing had something to do with it.

After some time to digest this I’m able to relax a bit, but Matt and Angela point out it’s good to “get back on the horse.” Mentally I agree, but my innards are still tense. Nonetheless, they happen to have a friend Shaundra’s rig in their trunk and get a text approval for me to jump it. The rig is pretty tight on me, but Angela said it was flattering and made me look like huge. And so I get on another load with Matt, Angela, and CJ. On the plane ride up, I’m feeling some of the fear reminiscent of my very early jumps.

In freefall we plan to do a “hybrid” with CJ and me gripping arms in a belly formation while Angela swings underneath us and hangs. It goes off well, and when Angela hangs below us, I feel a marked increase in speed. She let’s go and falls below us. We break off and track away. I pull. Parachute opens. Parachute lands. I’m over the hump.

Swiss Miss – Part 2 (Euro5)

After the beautiful day at Skydive Switzerland, we drive back to Interlaken to find a place for the night. The weather is so nice we check out a couple campgrounds. The second one, Camping Hobby 3 (cubed), looks incredibly quaint, and we can’t resist. The proprietress, Heidi, is clearly of Swiss-German disposition. In the states at campgrounds you simply pay cash and get a spot, but she dutifully makes us fill out forms with passport numbers, birth dates, and the like. Then she outlines the rules: no driving in after 10 pm, no use of these particular toilets after 10 pm, don’t turn on these lights, don’t wear shoes in the shower area, etc., etc. She doesn’t simply recite rules someone else laid out, but speaks with authority and a detectable disdain as if anyone who violated them is clearly an idiot. I mention my observation to Nicole and she says there are some Swiss-Germans who want to move to the French part (near Geneva and Lausanne) because it is less “Swiss.”

Heidi told us that she almost closed down for the season the previous week but the great weather allowed her to stay open one more week. The campground is surrounded by the idyllic Swiss scenery: green grass, quaint homes, and milk cows donning bells. Heidi said the cows were brought back down from the hills in the last couple weeks. It’s so rustically cute, it’s as if I’m in a dream (note cowbells in the video).


 

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Eiger and Mönch from our campsite

After Joe’s Friday workday at EPFL, he takes a two-hour train ride out to Interlaken to meet us. In a rare Swiss occurrence the train is 10 minutes late. No worries, Nicole and I get drinks at a street stand and sip them while waiting – drinking in public is okay in Europe. When Joe disembarks Nicole presents him with a kitschy Swiss beer. Slightly inebriated we walk around town. I marvel at all the Swiss army knives for sale at every store. We get some traditional Swiss grub at a place recommended by Heidi for its authentic food. I think I ordered a snitzel, but frankly the restaurants in Switzerland weren’t that memorable (except for the duck lunch at Joe’s university, but that was a French “canard”).

We awake to a crisp dewing morning, cowbells-a-ringing. We break camp, plop down on a blanket in the dewy grass, and have a picnic breakfast of tasty Italian grapes, sandwiches, bread, and cheese while we figure out what to do. We settle on trying a hike in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. In Lauterbrunnen we park at the train station that goes up to Jungfraujoch or “The Top of Europe”, a resort and viewing area way up in the saddle between Jungfrau and Mönch at 11,400 feet. We consider taking the train but it’s is over $100 and we’re not feeling it, so we stick to our original hiking plan. Quickly we find the typical yellow Swiss hiking signs to Mürren and Gimmelwald which sit atop the steep western valley wall. The hike is a steady ascent, my body relishing the exercise after being in pure tourist mode for many days. The hike is mostly in shady woods with occasional views of the valley and triad of Eiger/Mönch/Jungfrau.

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Breakfast

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Lautterbrunnen

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Joe, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau on the path

After a couple hours and 3000 feet of elevation gain we take a break and get a beer in Mürren. I spot a guy who’s fooling around with what looks like BASE jumping gear. We wait around inconspicuously while he gets ready and eventually heads down towards what I assume is a jumping point. I try to follow casually and eventually run into him talking to a couple other Italian BASE jumpers. I ask them if there is any where to see them jump and unfortunately there isn’t as shrubs and topsoil near the edge of the cliff make it precarious to even approach. I see the original guy head off along a path and decide not to follow him.

We continue our hike through the small town of Gimmelwald and to Stechelberg where there is a cable car down to the valley floor. It’s getting late so we decide to take it. We were expecting it to be 20 francs each, but it was only 6 francs! As we board, I hand the attendant my ticket that I just bought from her,  and in Swiss tradition she inspects it diligently for several seconds to make sure its not expired, used, or counterfeit. You never know what those foreigners would do to get a free ride.

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Stechelberg cable car

Back on the glacier carved valley floor we make our way back to Lauterbrunnen. Unfortunately we’re too late to see the underground Trümmelbach Falls that was on Nicole’s list. We actually see some BASE jumpers flying their canopies in for landing, though we missed their jumps.

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On the way out of town we stop to get a bite at a Thai place in Interlaken. It was a nice change of pace so much cheesy-meaty Swiss fare. I’m sad to leave the Alps. I have many reasons to come back: see the underground falls, take the $100 train to Jungfraujoch, and perhaps get Nicole to do a jump at Skydive Switzerland.

On Sunday, I bid farewell to my gracious hosts and tour guides Nicole and Joe and fly out of Geneva, my European holiday over.

Ogre, Monk, and Virgin (Euro4)

On Friday, Nicole and I drive two hours into the heart of Switzerland to the Swiss-German town of Interlaken, gateway to the Swiss Alps, where we hoped to hike, and home to Skydive Switzerland, where I hoped to jump. Interlaken is nestled between two large lakes, Thun and Brienz, each about 10 miles long and 500 ft deep on average,  that are fed from several sheer walled, glacier-carved valleys. The most famous of these is the Lauterbrunnen Valley with 72 waterfalls and access to the three most famous peaks in Switzerland: the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau — the ogre, monk, and virgin. (The pic above shows Eiger and Mönch.)  Each tops 13,000 feet with year round glaciers flowing below them. The Eiger is featured in the 1975 Clint Eastwood film “The Eiger Sanction.”

We find the small flugplaz (airfield) and Skydive Switzerland relatively easily at noon and there are only a couple people there as they run plane loads only for tandems who have yet to arrive. They check my log book and license and set me up with a rental rig. Unlike the low-tech country German drop zone I visited the previous weekend (a German guy their made it a point to show me a part of the plane that just came off–granted it was just internal), everything at Skydive Switzerland is brand new. The hanger, the plane, the rental gear. I wonder how they do it. Looking at their tandem price tells the story: 380 CHF (Swiss Francs) or $430!! The tandems at Skydive Arizona are $190. This is Switzerland: everything costs 2-3 times more than anywhere else. I can’t figure out how they afford it — do expensive watches and cheese pay for everything? Soon a bunch of Japanese kids arrive to do tandems and we’re in business. The weather turns out to be uncharacteristically warm, and Nicole reads in the sun while I do my thing. The plane ride up is the most spectacular I’ve ever experienced, flanked on both sides by steeps and cliffs (shown in video). 

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Relaxing at Skydive Switzerland

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Alps

More Alps and Interlaken (between the lakes)

I do two solo jumps from the shiny new plane. I’m the last out both times, following the last tandem and pulling by 9000 feet to enjoy about 10 minutes of flight. Surprisingly it’s not that cold. The view is so spectacularly beautiful that my mind can’t process it. The tandems reach the ground five minutes before me: I’m the only parachutist flying above the Alps. 

Nicole asks me if I want to do more, but I’m pretty satisfied — these jumps are my second most favorite yet, after the two at Burning Man. I settle my bill, 60 CHF per jump. It was a bargain.