Category Archives: People

Ray Zahab & Expedition Gobi

ray-zahab

I got a phone call from Ray Zahab yesterday. He was at the airport, getting ready to board a plane for Asia and a 2,300km run across the most Gobi Desert. “Expedition Gobi” is just the latest, ambitious expedition from Ray, who has already run the Sahara at its widest point (some 7,500 km) back in 2007. And the arctic. And served as expedition leader for youth expeditions to Africa and the Andes.

Why does a man do such things? For an idea. And the inspiration this idea brings to the world. Ray’s idea is quite simple: most the things we tell ourselves are impossible, are in fact, quite possible. A simple, revolutionary idea. And I don’t use that word often. But how else do you describe someone’s dauntless commitment to proving that we are wrong about our limitations. And wrong to limit ourselves.

Ray’s organization is called “Impossible2Possible” (i2P) And he’s the first one to point out, “this is not about running. This is about human spirit. This is about that desire in all of us to achieve something in our lives, but also… to want to make a difference in the lives of others.”

ray_zahab-3

The way Ray Zahab makes a difference is by taking teenage explorers with him. Not talking about it. Doing it with them. Taking them past their limitations and showing them they are more powerful than they think. Having been a volunteer teacher for at risk teens in Los Angeles for a couple of years, I can tell you, this is no small gift. This is a gift that gives for a lifetime. Every teen if full of self doubt. Hell most adults still are. So if you can take them through that, to what may be the first big success in their lives… that is a thing worth doing.

So let’s all send some good wishes to @RayZahab and Kevin Lin this week. Seriously. They start this weekend. Let them hear from you as they #RunGobi. It’s important. Someone out there is doing something amazing. And we are all lifted by it.

Fitz Cahall, True Story

Fitz and Becca Cahall
Fitz and Becca Cahall, aka Duct Tape Then Beer Productions

I’ve been looking forward to writing about Fitz Cahall, because I have been reading and watching and listening to his adventure stories for months. They’re fantastic. In fact, in the world of adventure journalism, Fitz stands pretty tall.

If you don’t already know them, Fitz Cahall and his wife Becca Cahall run a Seattle based production company called Duct Tape Then Beer. Among their impressive output is a weekly podcast called, The Dirtbag Diaries. (Dirtbag being a term of affection here, as in: avid, passionate climbers, unswayed by such niceties as warm beds, hot showers, steady salaries, or any other distractions that might spoil the purity of a life devoted to rock and the great outdoors).

Fitz Cahall, photo by Voodooclimbing.com
Fitz Cahall, photo by Voodooclimbing.com

The podcast roams far beyond rock climbing stories, daring to plumb the meaning of obsession, serendipity, even life itself on more than one occasion.

I am not a rock climber, but I am a journalist. I’m also a professional filmmaker and storyteller, so it’s refreshing when I find someone else who is so committed to their work that it fills my tank too.

What I love about Fitz Cahall can be summed up in one word: authenticity. His stories don’t try to be anything they’re not. He doesn’t strain to be anyone he’s not. It’s more like he’s given over the microphone to his friends and climbing buddies, each to fumble about and share some pretty hard won insights. And a lot of laughs. Listening in, we feel we could as easily be at the campfire with them. Perhaps it’s the magic of radio, transposed to the web, but these tales feel so intimate. It’s really quite something to pull off on any regular basis. But I get the sense that Fitz brings out the ‘real’ in people. That he won’t stand for much puff.

To his credit, a great majority of these podcasts are stories he teases out of fellow adventurers. In the tradition of the great Studs Terkel – he seems to find other people endlessly fascinating and make it his job to bring their stories out. I’m happy to report, it seems to be working, because the Dirtbag Community is robust and growing.

Fitz Cahall records The Dirtbag Diaries
Fitz Cahall records The Dirtbag Diaries

“Any man who can build an audience of thousands from a recording booth in his closet is my kind of storyteller.”

The other major component of “Duct Tape Then Beer” are the short films and web series they produce. “The Season” is a soulful, multipart web series created with partner Bryan Smith, and follows several athletes through a season of their sport, each on something of a personal odyssey. The series wrapped after two runs, but you can find it here.

Then there are the short films that Fitz and company occasionally produce, which pop up from time to time at festivals and on the web. “35” is a recent favorite that found some much deserved acclaim. From what I know, it pretty much sums up what Fitz and his posse are about. They’re about “the moments that define each of us” and not letting them slip by unnoticed. Or unappreciated.

I once spent a weekend with a Bhutanese monk with much the same objective. For him, it seemed hardly a single moment slid by without appreciation. For the rest of us, who are still learning, there are storytellers like Fitz, who bring us back to what’s real. What matters. And what the only real jewels are in life – each other.

Please take a minute to check out some of what Duct Tape Then Beer is up to. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself recharged enough to go DO something. Which I bet is what Fitz would tell you if he were here: “Now let’s do this thing!”

The Dirtbag Diaries
Dirtbag Nation on Facebook
Duct Tape Then Beer on Vimeo

Dave Cornthwaite’s 1000 Mile Expeditions

dave_cornthwaite_miguel_endara_9s

I love the Dave Cornthwaite story. It starts in 2005, when a 23 year old graphic designer walks off his job in London, grabs a skateboard and skates the length of Britain. A new life begins.

Expedition 1000

Expedition 1000 is Dave Cornthwaite’s ambitious plan to undertake 25 expeditions of at least 1000 miles, each using a different kind of non-motorized transport. Skateboards. Paddleboard. Bicycle. Swimming. Sailing. He’s got six under his belt so far and the stories just keep getting better.

Swim 1000

A few days ago, I came across this excellent short film about Dave’s “Swim 1000” expedition of 2012. This was a 1000 mile swim of the Missouri river undertaken for Coppafeel, the breast cancer charity. The journey began August 10th in Chamberlain, South Dakota and ended 58 days later in St. Louis, Missouri. But that’s not the real story.

The story he’s bringing you is the one captured by Miguel Endara, an advertising exec who befriended Dave and volunteered to capture his expedition. Did he ever! Here’s the film.

I think this is an exquisite little piece of filmmaking. Maybe because of his training, maybe because he was there with this extraordinary troupe, Miguel Endara skips past all the logistics and machinations that distract many adventure filmmakers and just gets to the heart of this journey. The people on it.

Swim 1000 Team photo by Miguel Endara
Swim 1000 Team photo by Miguel Endara

“It’s about the people,” Dave Cornthwaite avows. And so it is. Heartfelt, hypnotic, rich in character, this is seriously great filmmaking in a small package.

I defy anyone to watch this film and not wish they have been there to experience the journey. “I want to get to be an old man and look back and have a lifetime of memories and smile about them. And if I’m living in a tent, then I’m living in a tent.” Wise words. Can’t wait to see what Dave Cornthwaite does next.
Here’s his website.

Dave Cornthwaite & team at finish photo Miguel Endara
Dave Cornthwaite & team at finish of Swim 1000 photo Miguel Endara

On the road with Alan Watts

backroads of arizona, photo by ric gibbs
backroads of arizona, photo by ric gibbs
I found Alan Watts in the glove compartment of a ’69 Firebird. It was years ago, and I was on a long, rambling trek home from Gallina, New Mexico to Los Angeles. You can drive that distance in about 14 hours, but it took me nearly three weeks of wandering the back roads of the Navajo reservation, through Tierra Amarillo and Chaco Canyon and Window Rock.

Anyone who tells you, you can’t have a spiritual experience on a car trip, hasn’t been to the American Southwest. There’s a vastness to these landscapes. And a certain kind of meditation that settles over you when all the radio stations fade to static and the road stretches out like a baked black ribbon across the desert floor as far as the eye can see. Next gas 75 miles. And they friggin’ mean it.

Out there, you can see storms forming an hour in advance. Great rolling thunderheads colliding with one another and the dark wall of rain heading your direction. Time to take shelter.

Alan Watts
Alan Watts

It was on one of those afternoons, holed up on a ridge near Mexican Hat, that I discovered a homemade cassette tape in the glove compartment of my car. I hadn’t had the car long. Bought it for $500 off some kid in Pasadena because his parents were sick of it leaking oil in the driveway. It needed a rebuilt tranny and a coat of paint but that car was indestructible. Even with hail stones raining down on it. Hail in the desert. Just one of the surreal moments of that trip.

“Alan Watts” was all the tape said. I popped it in. And a thin, reedy, bemused voice came on, to tell me the meaning of life. Literally.

If you’ve never heard of Alan Watts – he died before most of our times – he was a thinker of extraordinary caliber. An explorer of the mind, you could say. And he got pretty far out there. An Episcopal priest who ditched the church and moved to Berkeley, Watts went WAY beyond introducing California to Buddhism. In the late 1950s, Watts was the counter culture. Without him and Timothy Leary and Fritz Perls dropping LSD and questioning the very makeup of a society, the ‘60s might never have happened. Theirs was the philosophical underpinning. Theirs was the first ascent on the mountain that would BE the 1960s.

As you listen to Alan Watts, you really are transported to moments of impossible clarity. An understanding of yourself and your place in the universe that is refreshingly different from everything we’ve been programmed to believe. I will not paraphrase. His books are in print. His lectures available, freely online (if you do a little looking) which is what he’d want, I’m sure. There’s even an Alan Watts podcast app, you can listen to in your car. As I did. Many summers ago as hail swept across the desert floor. And it seemed the perfect time… for a bit of enlightenment.

author Ric Gibbs at Bright Angel Pt. on the north rim of the canyon.
author Ric Gibbs at Bright Angel Pt. on the north rim of the canyon.

Thanks to “TragedyandHope” for editing this video. Thanks to Kraig Becker of the Adventure Blog for being the first to share it!

Adventurer of the Year: Lizzy Hawker

Lizzy Hawker, ultra long distance runner.
Lizzy Hawker runs the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, 103 miles. photo: The North Face.

Just in time to beat the voting deadline… ultra long distance runner Lizzy Hawker makes up our 10th and final look at National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year, 2013. Don’t forget to vote by January 16!

* * *

You know that scene in the movie Forrest Gump where, after the girl leaves him, Forrest heads off for a run that takes him across the country about six times? Seemingly no limit to his endurance? That’s what I think of when I read about Lizzy Hawker. A petite British woman who didn’t run a professional race until she was 29 and entered NorthFace’s Ultra Marathon du Mont Blanc on a whim – and won it!

Some fish are born to swim, right?

In his excellent post for Nat Geo, Fitz Cahall paints the picture in all its grueling colors. 103 miles (168 km) with a cumulative 31,168 feet of uphill climb. As anyone who has run a regular marathon can tell you – this is quite an achievement. Lizzy has won the women’s title 5 out of the 6 times she’s run it.

lizzy hawker wins UTMB
Lizzy Hawker wins first place for her 5th time, at Northface’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. photo: Franck Oddoux.

Since finishing her PhD in oceanography, and her work with the British Antarctic Survey, Lizzy has concentrated on endurance running. She credits her success to a natural level of endurance and a deep love of the mountains. In fact, it seems like just being in the mountains is her primary motivation.

Perhaps even more impressive than the large, well organized UTMB, was Lizzy’s try at the Great Himalayan Trail, across Nepal, solo.

You have to realize that a trail like that – criss-crossed for thousands of years – doesn’t exactly come with trail markers. “There are lots of old hunting trails. The animals have worn parts [of it] as well. It’s very easy to get off the main trail. I was in really steep old-growth forest. I managed to lose a small bag that had the satellite phone and permits for the entire journey.”

Losing that bag meant the end to Lizzy’s trek. Without being able to make her daily sat-phone check in, she knew her friends would be calling out a rescue party.

Of course she’s planning on trying again. When you’re Lizzy Hawker, you don’t need a prize at the end of the road. You just need the trail, your shoes and the mountains. How pure is that?

“For me, moving fast in the mountains just comes natural.”

Lizzy Hawker
Lizzy Hawker loves to run in the mountains. Whether there’s a race or not!

Adventurer of the Year: Ramon Navarro

Ramon Navarro, surfer
Big wave surfer Ramon Navarro lives in Patagonia. photo by Red Bull Media

Ramon Navarro is National Geographic’s 9th candidate for Adventurer of the Year, 2013.

When you grow up in a fishing village with a break like this one, it’s easy to see why you’d grow up passionate about the ocean. What we love about Ramon Navarro isn’t just that he’s an amazing big wave surfer. It’s that the ocean is his life.

pichilemu, chile
Near perfect surf where Ramon Navarro grew up, at Punta de Lobos in Chile. photo courtesy Surf Locker

The first thing I knew in life was the ocean and how to live with the ocean.

So it’s not surprising that when Ramon Navarro isn’t out wowing the surf world with massive barrel rides, he finds himself involved in local politics to protect the pristine coastline of Punta de Lobos against developers.

Ramon hopes to see this gem of coast added to Chile’s National Parks. But as many in Patagonia have learned, setting up a national park in Chile is not easy. [Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has used private funds to protect public land, read his story]. Of course, one visit to this corner of the planet would have you enrolled in these conservation projects too. Patagonia remains one of the last pristine wildernesses in the world.

But wait… we were talking surf. So here’s the “perfect barrel” that catapulted Ramon Navarro even higher into the ranks of surfing lore.

Don’t forget to vote by January 16th! At National Geographic.

Adventurer of the Year: Jeremy Jones

Jeremy Jones, snowboarder.
Jeremy Jones, snowboarder.

As I write this, we have only one week to vote for our favorite “Adventurer of the Year” at National Geographic. And the choices don’t get any easier with Jeremy Jones.

Jeremy Jones has done what few top athletes in their sport have ever done – walk away. After establishing himself as one of the pioneers of big mountain, big line snowboarding in the ‘90s and after making some 40 snowboarding films, and founding Jones Snowboards, Jeremy walked away from the world of fat sponsorships and heli-skiing to go off the grid. To take himself and his friends deep into the mountains for some of the purest boarding out there. Backcountry.

For those unfamiliar, backcountry snowboarding (or skiing) is really a combination of mountain climbing, winter camping, snowboarding and just plain survival. Grab your ropes, your ice axes and crampons, if you’re serious, you can have the most spectacular mountains in the world all to yourselves. But it’s work. And you better not screw up. Because there’s no ski patrol to haul your ass down to the hospital. There’s no cell phone reception or saint bernard dog with a cask of cognac. There’s just relentless cold and risk of avalanche that will bury your ass, making you one with the glacier.

Here’s the trailer for “FURTHER” Jones’ newest film about this brave new world.

Any guy who will reach the pinnacle of his sport and say, “what’s next?” Any guy who will climb 10 hours (and 9,000 ft) in the middle of the night to make a run at first light… any guy who is THIS determined to experience the mountains in their purest, most remote form – regardless of hardship – this is our kind of adventurer!

Jeremy Jones
Jeremy Jones with his splitboard in Alaska. photo: Teton Gravity Research

In fact, adventurer is too timid a word for Jones. He’s really an explorer. What else can you call a man whose sole focus is discovering new lines, opening new territories, innovating new skills and new technology, like the splitboard, which can be skinned and worn like skis for climbing, then clipped back together for the run?

What else can you call a guy who isn’t satisfied with his own enjoyment of the mountains, but uses his success to rally supporters to put environmental pressure on Washington (Protect Our Winters)?

Jones is a man walking his talk. No b.s. No half measures. He loves the mountains, he loves to shred. He inspires, he innovates, he lives to lead. What else can you want for Adventurer of the Year?

Don’t forget to VOTE! Deadline Jan. 16, 2013.

Adventurer of the Year: Josh Dueck

Josh Dueck
Josh Dueck won a Silver Medal in the Vancouver Paralympics, 2010. Photo: Freeskier.com

Part 7 of our look at National Geographic’s candidates for “Adventurer of the Year.”

The first time I saw Josh Dueck, he rolled onto the stage at the Banff Film Festival and the crowd shot to its feet. They had come to see the “Radical Reels” films, but clearly were more stoked at seeing him as their MC for the night. I could see why. Not only had Josh brought Canada a silver medal in the Vancouver Paralympic Games, but he had just become the first skier to ever land a back flip in a sit ski. Talk about unstoppable.

Since his paralyzing injury in 2004, Josh has gone on to have a bigger career than most able-bodied skiers could hope for:

Josh Dueck has won more medals since his paralyzing ski injury than ever before. photo: Hannah Johnson
Josh Dueck photo: Hannah Johnson

1st Place Mono Skier X (X-Games, Aspen 2010)

3rd Place Mono Skier X (X-Games, Aspen 2012)

1st Place Downhill, World Cup (Whistler 2009)

1st Place Downhill, World Championship (Korea, 2009)

1st Place Super G, World Cup (Panorama 2012)

The list goes on, but you get the idea. The guy is a powerhouse, he loves to shred. He lives to shred. He may have been dealt a really lousy card, but if anything, this has only powered him forward to become, not just a world champion, but a world class inspiration.

What’s so refreshing about Josh, when you read his blog or see him interviewed, is the clarity he shines on life and what really matters. This odyssey isn’t one he willingly undertook. To sever your spine at the beginning of your career would be enough to stop most guys cold. Period. Over. Retreat into self-pity, or worse. That’s not Josh. Not only did he become a better skier, he became a bigger person. Open, articulate, refreshingly honest. Take this excerpt from a recent trip to Colorado:

To summarize, I skied like crap. It was a rough stretch of getting my arse kicked by the mountain, myself and the other athletes. I could get into the details but it’s no more than a long list of complaints that equate to a poor outlook on the challenges presented. Leaving Colorado feeling quite discouraged I did my best to keep my head up and focus on the simple fact that I get to ski for a living and that’s pretty awesome. I trust that with some minor adjustments and a bit of hard work that the rest of the details will inevitably sort themselves. — from JoshDueck.com

The day Josh took his back flip onto an airbag on the slopes – his first real run on the ramp he would use – was the day he heard his close friend Sarah Burke had died of injuries sustained in Park City.

“We just got the phone call that Sarah had passed away. I just fell over. We were in a place that Sarah absolutely loved, and it was a good afternoon to be doing what we were doing. Instead of being afraid to hit the airbag, I said, I know exactly what Sarah would do. She loved to be afraid and overcome those challenges. There was no question. I said, “We’re doing this.” Her energy carried through what we were attempting to do that day.” – excerpt from Nat Geo interview.

To find gratitude where others find only adversity… might just be the rarest of qualities any of us can learn.

Personally, I’m not sure if Josh is a better skier or a better human. Whatever strength he’s tapped to lead himself through this new chapter in life is pretty damn amazing. He may not be superman, but he puts it out there. He lives life like a champion. Not because of his achievements, but because of his vulnerabilities. And his remarkable ability to look past them and say, “Yes, we’re doing this.”

Don’t forget to vote by Jan. 16, 2013.

Adventurer of the Year: Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher and team mates on the Congo River.  photo: Desre Pickers, Red Bull Content Pool
Steve Fisher and team mates on the Congo River. photo: Desre Pickers, Red Bull Content Pool

We continue our look at Nat Geo’s 10 candidates for “Adventurer of the Year” with kayaker Steve Fisher.

I have been a fan of big kayaking expeditions since I first saw Rush Sturges’ “Africa Revolutions Tour” on youtube years ago.  Loading up your kayak and setting sites on some of the wildest, most remote rivers of the world? Using whitewater as your excuse to see some of the more pristine corners and cultures on the planet? Now THAT’s an expedition.

Not being a kayaker myself and having all the water skill of a cement brick, I have never partaken in anything like this. But the more I read about Steve Fisher and his buddies, the more I want to.

Fisher has been called the world’s best kayaker in various magazines and, leading the only team of paddlers to ever run the Inga Rapids, it would be hard to argue this title. For those who don’t know, Nat Geo’s interview with Fisher lays it out pretty clearly. The Inga Rapids are a 50 mile stretch of the Congo River, with some 16 cataracts and where 1.6 million cubic feet of water blasts through a channel less than a mile wide. The resulting chaos has never before been survived. Fisher led the expedition with world class kayakers Rush Sturges, Tyler Brandt, and Ben Marr. Here’s the Red Bull Media teaser. The entire film runs 77 min.

Fisher grew up in rural South Africa, paddling rivers from the age of 6. By 21 he had become a full time kayaker and guide on the Zambezi, then off on a world tour, taking top prizes in at least seven major kayaking competitions. You might think leading the Inga project would be a crowning achievement since there are no bigger runs on the planet, but as Steve himself points out: “I try not to hang onto one single accomplishment… if you hang onto one item, like a world record or a title, then when someone betters you on that, what do you have? Nothing. I try to hang onto a well rounded list and to be an all-rounder.”

Steve Fisher in Africa.  photo Desre Pickers, Red Bull Content Pool
Steve Fisher in Africa. photo Desre Pickers, Red Bull Content Pool
To be honest, when I first saw video from the Inga Project, I watched with a pang of doubt. Red Bull got behind this project in a big way, which I have nothing against, because God bless those guys as sponsors. Still… one of the key reasons the team was able to navigate this wild ride was because they had a Red Bull helicopter overhead spotting for them. The major challenge of the Inga, Fisher points out, is that it’s too damn big to see what’s coming. You can get bounced out of jaw-breaking hole right into a massive whirlpool and… so long charlie. Having a helicopter overhead was the only way they got through it. Which begs the question – when you are claiming a “first descent” of an impossible rapids – what about the kayakers without a helicopter/spotter? Is it really a level playing field? Or should there be an asterisk on this one?

Truthfully, I don’t know. You could just as well challenge the use of oxygen to climb Everest and no one takes that away from Hillary. Sports evolve. Techniques are pioneered. This is what great explorers and competitors do. They figure out HOW to achieve something that’s never been achieved. And Fisher’s been doing this for years, pioneering more tricks than Shaun White in the half pipe. To watch this guy on the rapids is like watching a martial artist dance and pirouette his way through a battle. It’s pretty damn spectacular. As so is the humility with which he wears it. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

Adventurer of the Year: Shannon Galpin

Shannon Galpin
Shannon Galpin, founder Mountain2Mountain.org photo by Tony Di Zinno

Part 5 of our closer look at National Geographic’s candidates for “Adventurer of the Year” brings us to Shannon Galpin.

Anyone with the stones to call themselves an adventurer, will eventually smack into this idea of “heroism.” Hero is a word we throw around way too easily in our culture. We use it for sports figures. We use it for celebrities. We use it for soldiers who just do their job. And there is heroism in serving your country. But for me, even this pales in comparison to serving an ideal nobody asked you to serve. At great cost and great personal risk, for no better reason than you saw it had to be done.

Enter Shannon Galpin, a 38 year old mom and mountain biker from Colorado who decided one day that signing petitions wasn’t enough to change the world.

Video courtesy of MoveShake.org

It is impossible to tell the story of what she’s done without acknowledging the events that brought her there. Because – to paraphrase Shannon – where we were broken, we can be stronger than before. We need not be victims. Through telling our story, we become the catalyst for change.

So these are the events: At eighteen, heading home from work, Shannon was brutally attacked, raped, and left for dead. She told herself she would not live as a victim, but as you can imagine, this was no easy task. It took energy. It took focus.

Thirteen years later, her little sister was also attacked. And enough was enough. The year was 2006 and the country was deeply mired in war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Shannon got the idea to take her fight into the very teeth of the monster.

Afghanistan. A country rated the worst place in the world to be a woman. A country where women had no right to work or be educated. Had no right to love or to marry outside the family’s will. Where Afghan soldiers would throw acid in the faces of young girls for daring to attend school.

Out of the middle of Colorado, selling her own house to finance it, Shannon Galpin traveled into a war zone to say “no.” These women would no longer be your victims. She would encourage them. She would teach them to speak out. She would empower them to tell the stories they kept hidden. To use the crimes against them as evidence of social injustice.

Wow. In a country like that? With no rule of law and where violence against women is as common as swatting a donkey? And where – need we point out – foreigners are not safe… THAT, my friends, is heroism.

Bibi Aisha
Bibi Aisha had nose and ears cut away for fleeing her abusive husband.

“Through the heartbreak of one, we plug into the many,” she says. Meaning that the problem of social injustice is easy to ignore. The story of two ten year old girls, who have acid thrown in their faces for attending school – is impossible to ignore.

In August 2010, Time Magazine ran the story of one of Shannon’s girls, Bibi Aisha, on its cover. Apologies for the graphic image, but like we said, the story of one person, a person who could be our sister, or our daughter is a lot harder to ignore. The brutality visited upon Afghan women took center stage, if only for a moment. And the world recoiled.

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

                                                               ~  Mohandas K. Ghandi

You could not find another adventurer living this truth more fully than Shannon Galpin. Please check out her organization, “Mountain2Mountain.org” or her presentation at TEDx. An amazing woman.