Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Zion National Park

Woo hoo! What a great, fantastic, amazing place!

I was in Las Vegas for a Interbike, the big bicycle trade show in the US, and had managed to get a little extra time off, so I could rent a car and drive on up to Zion National Park in Utah. Why didn't I stay in Vegas, one of the major vacation destinations in the country? Well, I'll write a more detailed post with my thoughts on that city, but for now, let's just say it's one of my least favorite places to be. I'm just not a Vegas kinda guy.

So off I went last Friday to Zion. The drive was fun, and I marvelled at how the landscape changed from Nevada to Arizona (you pass through a tiny corner of AZ) to Utah. Particularly the transition from Nevada to Arizona... you can almost see the border in the land. No offense to Nevadans, but I really find the AZ/UT scenery prettier.

I arrived At Zion about noon, which gave me just enough time to get a taste for the park. Enough of a taste to say I really want to come back some time when I have a week or so to spend. I had been to the park once before, but it was dark by the time I got there, and I never really saw much of anything. This time, I climbed on the shuttle bus (cars are not allowed on the main road in season) and looked at the park literature, trying to figure out which trail to explore, since I wanted to do some hiking. I stopped at the Zion Lodge for lunch, and considered the popular Emerald Pools trails... but their very popularity made me shy away. A friend had suggested the Angel's Landing Trail, if I felt up to it. Looking at the park materials, it sounded challenging, but also really cool. So I decided to try it out, figuring I could always turn around if it proved too much for that day.

If you look at the picture at the top, you'll see a high peak there in the middle of the picture. I didn't realize it at the time, but that's where I was headed... right to the top of that! It's about a 2.5 mile hike up there, with a lot of altitude gain, as you might guess. And there are parts of it where they've installed chains on the trickier bits so you have something to grab onto when you're faced with a sheer dropoff of over 800 feet! It's actually not as scary as it sounds... or at least I didn't think so, but I have zero fear of heights, so your experience may be very different. I have to imagine that fear of heights would really change one's perception of this hike. For me, it was fun, challenging and spectacularly beautiful.

I did reach one spot where I thought about turning back and not completing the whole hike. There's a lovely spot about a half mile from the top where you can sit and admire the views... and watch folks navigating the last strenuous and tricky bit! There's a couple of signs up there at that point....
The "oh crap" stick figure sign didn't really deter me. The smaller brown sign however did specifically mention the hazard of lightning... and I had heard thunder on the way up. It was pretty clear by the time got to these signs, but I overheard a few folks on the way down talking about near lightning strikes at the top. Heights, as I said, don't bother me... getting hit by big bolts of electricity is another matter. So I sat a few minutes, watching others scramble up or down the last half mile, and enjoying the view where I was, and pondered. Here's a shot of one of the steep bits to the right there, complete with chains.

Anyway, after a few minutes of thought and just soaking in a beautiful day, I thought "when the heck am I going to be here again?" That cinched it for me, and I headed up to the top. Sure, it was challenging, but not unreasonably so. And the view from the top was just amazing. Along the way, I encountered a bunch of chipmunks and lizards, more than I would have expected that high up.

One of the first things I encountered in the last stretch was a ridge about 30 inches wide, with a chain down the middle as a handhold, with sheer dropoffs to either side to rock at least 800 feet below. Wow! That's the spot where I think a person afraid of heights might just "freeze" and not be able to make it. For me it was fun. You can see what it looks like from above to the left here.

The next part was basically a scramble up steep rock faces with and without chains for help. At the top you find a large, flat rock surface, with a wide open view all around. Amazing, beautiful, incredible place! And well worth the effort to get there.

The hike down was less eventful, but lovely. I took the opportunity to look at some of the plant life, and stopped at one point to listen to the singing of tree frogs, a sound you don't expect to hear in a desert climate.

Finally, just as I was reaching the canyon floor, I came upon a gentleman with his friends, who proceeded to introduce me to Farnsworth, the tarantula he'd found and picked up on the trail. Now, in general I like spiders, and I know that US tarantula bites are typically not serious, but I don't think I'd be so bold as to scoop one up and let it crawl on me for a while. But that's just me. Here's a shot of Farnworth, just for grins:

All in all, an amazing hike, and a beautiful day. I'm so glad I decided to try that trail and push on to the top. You can see how glad I am by the goofy grin on my face here in a picture I took at the top, with the Great White Throne behind me:More pictures at:


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Finally Tried Hang Gliding!

Yep, that's me, on one of my first hang gliding flights!

Apologies to my faithful readers for the long gap in posting... life's been busy and I haven't been very inspired to write lately. But hopefully I'll get back in the swing here.

Anyway, this past Sunday I got a chance to try something I've wanted to do since I was an adolescent... hang gliding! Thanks to Annie, who bought me a couple of gift certificates to BlueSky Hang Gliding near Richmond, one of which was for a half day of beginner's lessons.

The day started early, with Annie and me getting on the road to Richmond at about 5 am, to make sure we got there in time for the 8 am class. As it turned out, we got there about an hour early, and the other folks signed up for the class got there late. Argh. Ah well, it was an easy drive and a pretty location once we got there.

The class consisted of three of us...me and two younger folks from Richmond, Justin and Jo. Nice people, and fun to have a class with.

We started out by getting "suited up" in a flight harness and helmet. I never knew something could make a bike helmet seem elegant and a pleasure to wear, but the generic rental hang gliding helmets did just that... really, really basic and not very comfortable at all. I have to imagine when you invest in one for yourself, there are better options. The harness was interesting... first because you put it on exactly the opposite of how you would think! The basic idea is that it's what hold you to the glider, so it has to encase you pretty darned well, and be pretty strong. Again, I'm guessing a rental harness is different from what you'd buy yourself if you're getting outfitted to fly.

Once we were all in our gear, it was time for "ground school." This was kept pretty brief. The owner/instructor of BlueSky, Steve, explained that while some folks really liked a lot of classroom time discussing the physics of flight, he believes it's more important to get you into a glider and experiencing things in real life. I'm inclined to agree, although it might have been nice if we had each taken a turn in the "simulator" you see in the photo to the right.

Then it was time to go out to the field and actually try flying the thing! BlueSky has an ingenious towing system that allows them to launch a glider from flat ground with no wind, using a modified motor scooter of all things. The scooter is stationary, and just acts as a motorized winch essentially. The rope is brought down the field and around a pulley, and back to a spot adjacent to the scooter, where it's hooked to the glider. This allows Steve to give you tips as you begin your run, and it also makes for a really efficient launch system. You can check it out here: http://www.blueskyhg.com/ Anyway, there I am, with Steve giving me some final tips, getting ready for my first flight! I was surprised at how calm I was, this being my first time. I guess having always wanted to try it, and having a good teacher, really helped. It doesn't hurt that I have a fair understanding of aerodynamics and flight, and at one time built kites and flew them a lot. (More on that in another post)

One thing became apparent as we each took our turns at flying... every one of us had a unique challenge to overcome. The first one for me was recognizing the difference between the glider having enough lift to lift itself off my shoulders and having enough lift to actually lift me! I got past that pretty easily though, with Steve's simple tip "keep running!" What do you know... it worked! And by the end of the day, I had several good flights I'm really proud and happy to have done. I never did really get the "graceful landing" thing worked out though. In fact, two of us made the majority of our landings like the picture to the right... "landing gear up" so to speak. It's not as unpleasant as it might look, aside from the grass being really, really wet.

One of my other challenges was figuring out the whole steering thing. Funny thing is, Steve warned us about this... he explained that many folks instinctively try to steer by turning their head in the direction they want to go, when what you really want to so is swing your hips that way. Sure enough, on one of my first flights, that's exactly what I did... you can see on the left here my glider starting to bank to the right. Just as Steve had warned, I turned my head and upper body to the left, which pushed my hips... and center of gravity... to the right... which made the bank steeper... which made the turn tighter... which...

... got me better acquainted with soybeans than I ever expected to be! You can see in this last picture that the flying field is flanked by soybean plants... BlueSky rents from a farmer, you see, and has carved out two perpendicular landing strips out of his fields, to allow for different wind directions. Well, let me tell you, soybeans are pretty solid plants when you run into a bunch of them. And they do retain the morning dew quite nicely, thank you. Oh, and by the way, they apparently have a purple blossom... I know because I stopped with my nose about 6 inches from one! The other folks couldn't tell, because the glider blocked the view and I was pretty far away, but my first reaction was to laugh about it. It must have looked pretty funny from the ground to see me inexorably drawn to the beanfield! The great thing was, no matter how a flight ended, I finished up with a big grin on my face. It was just so darned fun! And what a feeling, to lift off the ground and fly! Wow! As wonderful as I'd always imagined.

We each got in about 7 or 8 flights, and we all improved tremendously as the day went on. Jo was clearly the closest to a "natural" in the group... she just seemed to "get it" faster than Justin and I did. But we all made great progress, learned a ton, and smiled and laughed a lot. And Annie enjoyed watching us and taking all these pictures. Most of all, I think she wanted to watch me enjoy the gift she'd given me... and boy did I! Truly one of the best Christmas prestents I've ever gotten. And Christmas 2007 isn't over yet... I still have another BlueSky certificate for a tandem glider ride, towed up to 2000 feet! Woo hoo!

For more pictures and commentary, check out my flickr album: