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Politics : Adventure

Doggie BASE Rig

Happy April Fool's Day! We hope you enjoyed our little prank. For reviews that are no joke, check out our gear channel.

Created by Twin Falls, Idaho–based jumper and dog lover Abbie Poisson, Caninsanity’s Doggie BASE Rig is the first BASE-specific harness made for man’s best friend. The harness/container combo, designed for static-line deployment, is slated for final testing this April.

Designers are still working to streamline the rig, though the container got rave reviews from toy poodle and French-bulldog owners in limited trials and the quick-release leg straps have been constructed to accommodate dogs of all shapes, including dachshunds. The container works with any standard BASE canopy and will be fully compatible with the company’s Fido Flyer wingsuit, planned for early 2014. Minor gripe: the harness will be available only in medium and small for the first few months, so Saint Bernard owners will have to wait.

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The World's Largest Playground: Public Land and Adrenaline Junkies

Thad James claims to be one of the first people to swing from Utah’s Corona Arch, a 140-foot sandstone bridge on public land near Moab. James, the owner of local outfitter Utah High Adventure, says it all started in 2011 when he was rappelling from the arch one day with a friend, Brock Howell. "On our way down,” James says, "He asked if it was possible to jump and swing through the opening, and I said it would be if we had the right angle."

A couple months later, Howell and a group of friends were swinging through the arch, launching from its flank using existing rappelling bolts. In mid-February 2012, Howell's crew was filmed at the swing by YouTube phenom Devin Graham, whose video made the rope swing look like the most fun you could have. It quickly went viral, clocking nearly 20 million views as of today.

As the video spread around the internet, rope-swingers came. In droves. "Anytime I put out a video that has a product in it," says Graham, "They sell like crazy. I imagine it’s the same for any places that I shoot. There’s no question that it impacts people. When you get 10, 15, or 20 million views, it says a lot about how much traffic will go to that place."

By June, James had secured a permit from the agency with jurisdiction over the arch, the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). The permit allowed him to take paying clients out for a swing. Six months later, around 120 Utah High Adventure customers had strapped on a harness and flown through the arch with the greatest of ease (and perhaps a good bit of terror).

"Before the YouTube video came out it was hardly ever touched," James says of the arch. "You would see maybe one person rappelling each week." But after the video hit, James says he would get up at 4 a.m. and start hiking to the arch and start setting up the gear at 5 or 6 a.m., and then wait for clients to arrive. If he didn't, private groups would beat him to the arch and set up a swing.

While Graham's video made Corona Arch a viral media star, it appears that Howell and his buddies were not the first to set up a rope swing—not by a long stretch. Bryan Torgerson, resource specialist for SITLA, says it’s been going on for decades, just not in the sort of numbers that anyone would notice. "People have been swinging through the arch for as long as they've been rappelling off it,” says Torgerson. “Since the seventies."

Last year, as more outfitters recognized the opportunity, permit applications multiplied and SITLA started to worry about the safety implications. Someone, it was quite obvious, could be seriously injured, or killed. In late December, the agency decided to revoke Utah High Adventure's permit for commercial rope swinging at Corona Arch and preclude others from attaining permits. 

This left the arch open only to private citizens, such as 22-year-old Kyle Lee Stocking from West Jordan. On March 24, Stocking died from injuries sustained after slamming into the base of the arch during a swing. The rope he was using had too much slack.



THE RISKS INHERENT to swinging on a massive, makeshift pendulum are obvious, but can be controlled through thorough planning and testing (such as measuring the rope by tossing a rock-filled bag through the swing). The lesser risks are equipment failure or, perhaps, slipping off the launch before being harnessed. Most jumpers thread the portion of the ropes that rub against the rock through a section of fire hose or garden hose, to protect the rope from fraying.

But what of the harms done to the arch itself? There are already grooves that have been dug into the arch over decades of rappelling (and, apparently, swinging), though Torgerson says that the grooves are "minimal." Schuman and James agree, the grooves are there but they're not massive.

While it could be confused with the Delicate Arch or similar landforms that are in Arches National Park or other parts of the National Park System, Corona Arch is on multi-use land that is open to far more recreational uses than the National Park Service allows. Under SITLA authority, Corona Arch has very few limitations on allowable use.

In the short term, wear and tear on the arch isn’t a huge concern, since the area is unlikely to see the rope-swing frenzy of 2012. Stocking's death will presumably quell enthusiasm among other would-be swingers, and the absence of commercial operators has likely already narrowed the field. However, the arch is part of a land swap that is underway between SITLA and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Once that happens, the rules may change.

James says that he plans to apply for a permit to restart his rope-swing business. If he gets it, other operators will likely come knocking.

"We're still assessing the situation regarding whether we would allow a rope-swing permit again on Corona Arch," says Aaron Curtis, outdoor recreation chief in the BLM's Utah State Office. "The main thing is, applicants will go through standard permit application that will include an environmental analysis. Is this a sustainable use? Would it impact the land? Will it harm public safety? And what is the demand?"

The BLM must, by mandate, maintain lands for multiple uses, and while leases sold to energy developers and ranchers represent most of its income, it does earn a 3-percent cut of gross revenues through the recreation permits it issues. It knows that the spectrum of adventure sports is always evolving. In fact in Utah, the BLM earns more revenue from recreational leases than grazing leases. High-lining and slack-lining, for example, are gaining devotees.

The land swap includes not just Corona Arch but a total of 47,000 acres of environmentally-sensitive land along the Colorado River corridor. The Utah State BLM could face recreational permit requests in many of these areas. Tourists already shell out for guided mountain biking, off-roading, climbing, and B.A.S.E. jumping—perhaps lured by increasingly prolific POV adventure videos—why not rope-swinging or high-lining as well?

As for Corona Arch, even if the BLM decides not to issue permits to rope-swing operators, people will continue to swing there (and elsewhere). But Curtis doesn't believe rope-swings will appreciably harm the arch—or at least, not in his lifetime. If environmental impacts or safety issues become significant, he says, the BLM has the authority to ban rope-swinging (or any other activity) and restrict access to popular sites.

Curtis knows of no sport that the BLM has outright banned on its Utah lands, but the risk profile of adventure sports on public lands is certainly on the rise. According to the Moab Sun News, 2012 was a record year for the Grand County Search and Rescue team, at 108 missions. Among those accidents was a "spate" of B.A.S.E. jumps that went awry. None of these six missions resulted in a fatality, and Mario Richard, co-owner of Moab B.A.S.E. Adventures with Steph Davis, says none of them were related to his commercial outings. "We have a 100% safety record," he says.

Richard noted that sometimes a passerby will call Search and Rescue (SAR) after seeing a jumper who is hung up in a tree or otherwise stuck, but not injured. “They might be doing a self-rescue,” he says, “Or maybe they have a friend on the way to help, but once 911 is called, search and rescue has to come.”

Still, Moab sees a million visitors a year and its reputation as a B.A.S.E., climbing, and adrenaline-sports Mecca is likely to grow. The number of mountain bikers involved in rescue missions grew steadily from 2001 to 2010, as did the number of drivers of off-road vehicles. Climbers and rappelers requiring rescue remained low during that time, and most years saw just one or two injured B.A.S.E. jumpers.

Beyond safety and environmental impacts, there's the question of whether adrenaline sports detract from the wilderness experience. While the footprint of adventure sports pales in comparison to that of, say, a natural gas well, it's not benign. Sometimes, bolts are drilled. Usually, people leave more than footprints. Always, people scream.

"High-adrenaline activities are loud and rambunctious,” Curtis says. “Sometimes people come to the backcountry just for the peace and quiet."

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Get Me Out of Here: Horseback Riding

The first time I went horseback riding I was eight years old and a Girl Scout-in-training (a Brownie, to be specific) who would never quite make it to the Girl Scouts. It was a surprise, too, because as a child I liked uniforms and codes of conduct and members-only salutes. But the wilderness skills, the large group socializing games, the requirement that we become door-to-door saleswomen who didn’t get to keep even a little of the money we raked in—it wasn’t for me. I earned three or four badges over two months, and then I quit. One of these—ironed onto my tiny brown vest by my mother—was the Horse Rider Badge. 

I got it on a summer troop field trip to a stable in the suburbs. (All the badges I earned were ones given to us, collectively, after field trips that forced the relevant achievement upon us—there were always girls with vests almost full, coming into meetings with forms and evidence that they’d learned to knit or, like, helped a younger child in distress, and the troop leader would help them send away for the appropriate badge. They were a pain.) The only thing we had to do to earn the Horse Rider Badge was to allow ourselves to be pushed up onto a horse and to remain seated there until the trail ride was over. It was easy and pleasant and when we reached the end of the trail I knew that I hadn’t messed it up. The guide circled us up so that we could dismount, and that’s when my horse decided he’d had enough of me and bucked. 

The good news is that I didn’t fall all the way off my horse; the bad news is that I did fall off part of the way, and that the thing stopping me from falling off all the way was a metal garbage can behind the horse’s rear. I didn’t fall in the garbage, but I hovered a lot closer than I’d have preferred, and then there was all the clanking. The cool Brownies laughed at me scrambling to climb back up my horse’s body, which set off the nerd Brownies laughing extra-loudly to fit in with the cool Brownies. Worst of all, my mom was on the trip as a chaperone, asking me if I was OK, even though she had to know how uncool it was, as an eight-year-old, to appear loved by and dependent on an adult. I got my badge, but really: was it worth it?

I’D ALWAYS LOVED HORSES, or at least what I’d read of them in books. There are so many paragraphs in so many period novels devoted to describing young women and their horses—feeding them shiny red apples and cubes of sugar, brushing their manes, fastening saddles over thick and symbolically meaningful horse blankets, galloping off over fields to see boys or to get away from them, dismounting their mares, un-lady-like, with dirty petticoats and rosy cheeks. You get this idea that they—we—belong together. A girl and her horse, the great abiding love story.

I asked my parents for a horse a number of times, like everyone, not recognizing the various impossibilities of the request: our tiny house in the city with an even tinier backyard, the cost, the way my parents knew before I did this was a fiction-based desire I’d grow out of by the time I started middle school. Instead my brothers and I made up horses and trotted them around the backyard in circles—what that must have looked like, I do not know—but even then it should have been clear: we spent so much more time describing the food we’d pretend to feed them than we did pretend-caring for the horses themselves.

The idea of it is so enduringly romantic that I almost always have some vague desire to go horseback riding, even after a few outings as a teenager that were modestly enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming. (Not being allowed to gallop or even trot really tempers the reckless, revolutionary-American girl spirit of the thing.) A lot of us have these weird, lingering feelings about horses, and that is probably why so many couples end up going horseback riding on the beach as a date, even though it seems to rarely work out as planned. That’s how it happened the last time Rylee went: with an ex-boyfriend in college, whom she took out horseback riding and to a fancy, expensive dinner, and who, right after all that, said “OK, see ya!” and went to hang out with his friends. And then they broke up.

It is in a semi-confused emotional state, then, that she and I arrive at Bunker Park Stable for a trail ride on a Saturday in mid-March. I’m excited and I don’t know why. I half expect to fall in love with a stable boy.

AFTER PAYING OUR FEES, we spend the 10-minute wait watching a group of little boys—one of whom adorably waves at us each time he passes, as though he were in a parade—receive a riding lesson in an enclosed arena. “I’m glad I don’t have a tail,” says Rylee, suddenly. “Just one more thing to worry about.” Things don’t often occur to us in the same way, but I can’t say I disagree.

A few minutes later a woman named Jackie takes us to meet our horses. I’m given a white horse named “Jericho,” and Rylee is given another named “Sarge,” who is white with brown splotches. Another guide, Doug—who is wearing a cowboy hat, somewhat incongruously, over a head and neck warmer—shows us how to lead the horses, but in truth we’ll never have to direct them even once: the trail is a narrow, packed-down path about a foot across, with four to five inches of snow everywhere on either side. There isn’t much room for interpretation.

Jericho doesn’t seem to think about escaping the trail even once in our time together, but I do constantly. It’s an impulse to do something bad, like thinking about driving into oncoming traffic but much less severe. What would happen if I yelled “HYAH” and dug my heels into his sides, and we took off galloping into the snow? How quickly would Doug catch me and how would I be punished, if at all? I already paid. They couldn’t arrest me. Right?

I’ll never know, I suppose. It was on me to make that ride into something closer to an adventure, but I never could break a rule. If I am honest with myself, I never would have wanted to get my petticoats dirty. Instead, ours is simply a pleasant (if freezing) ride in a very pretty area—forested in parts, clearing onto lakeside fields in others. And though I try to bond with this animal by rubbing its neck and calling it “Jeri” for short, there’s only so much you can accomplish in an hour. We’ll never ride into the sunset together. But at the end, when I step out of the stirrups, Jericho stands perfectly still until I am safe on the ground, and I would like to think that’s because he knew.

Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.

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Golfer Swallowed by Golf Course

Two weeks ago, Mark Mihal was having a pretty good Friday at Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Illinois, until he got halfway through the course’s dogleg-left par 5 number 14. The 43-year-old mortgage broker from St. Louis had driven 40 minutes from home because it was the first good weather they’d had for awhile. He and the rest of his regular Friday foursome—Mike Peters, Ed Magaletta, and Hank Martinez—came too. Since they’d played in a tournament at Annbriar a few months earlier, they played for free this time.

The plan was for Mihal and Peters, who teamed up, to destroy Magaletta and Hernandez in a pairs competition and take all their money in some friendly betting. By hole 14, they were up about 50 bucks each.

Mihal, about a 5 handicap, was 1-over for the day and had just put his second shot within 80 yards of the green, setting him up for an easy birdie attempt. Meanwhile, Magaletta and Martinez were stuck in the woods across the fairway, trying to chip out.

And then the earth opened beneath Mihal and swallowed him up.

After Mihal’s second shot, he walked toward the middle of the fairway to check the yardage for Peters. He noticed a strange indention. “Hey, check this out,” he said to Peters. “Look at this depression right in the middle of the fairway.”

Peters chuckled and said, yeah, you could hit a great drive and end up in what looked like a sand trap without sand, and that isn’t too fair. Peters then turned to size up his shot while Mihal, wanting to see what it would take to actually hit out of the thing, stepped down into the indention. That’s when he fell through the ground.

MIHAL GRABBED AT THE ground as he dropped, but it crumbled in his hand, and he fell for what felt like a very long time. Twenty feet later, he landed, crashing to the ground and badly dislocating his left shoulder. He fought back panic—Mihal is a self-diagnosed claustrophobe—as he yelled for help and tried to figure out what the hell had just happened.

Hearing Mihal’s shouts, Peters turned to find that his friend had vanished. He followed the shouts to the indention, which now featured a three-foot-wide hole that looked like it descended into eternal darkness. He yelled to Magaletta and Martinez to call 911, saying Mark fell into the ground.

He what?

When they called 911, they had to convince operators that it wasn’t a prank. Same for when they called the clubhouse. When the 911 dispatcher contacted EMS, they asked if they should send a fire truck. The dispatcher said no—apparently misunderstanding Mihal’s plight and thinking that some guy had just tipped over—and merely sent an ambulance.

Meanwhile, Mihal was underground, trying to figure out what the heck had just happened. Looking around his new cave, he thought it was in some sort of horror-movie trap. The walls looked manmade. He tried not to obsess over the news report he’d seen the other night, the tragic one about the man in Florida who’d fallen through a sinkhole in his own home, never to be seen again. It didn’t help that dirt kept falling on his head. He tried to take his mind off of it, which worked at first when he thought about how he’d ruined his sweater and how filthy he was, but then he started thinking about snakes crawling out of the walls, so then he started analyzing his cave some more, but then he kept seeing cracks in the ground where the darkness just went on forever, so then he just tried to stop visualizing the ground giving way again.

It took about 10 minutes for someone from the clubhouse—which was only 400 yards away—to show up. The ladder they brought only reached 12 feet down. They lodged it precipitously on a seven-or-eight-foot mound of mud in the cave, but Mihal’s shoulder was so hurt that he couldn’t climb.

Magaletta carefully and anxiously climbed down into the hole to help Mihal out. He made a sling out of his windbreaker for Mihal’s shoulder and tied a rope around Mihal’s waist and helped hoist him up the ladder and to safety.

They did not finish the round, meaning the bets were never settled, meaning that although Mihal was probably the victim of a freak nature accident, also maybe he was shrewdly sabotaged by Magaletta and Martinez, fed up with him always emptying their wallets. Naturally, they claim innocence, and lucky for them, science backs them up.

SAM PANNO, A SENIOR geochemist at the Illinois State Geological Survey, told the Associated Press that sinkholes are actually common in the area—there are about 15,000 recorded in southwestern Illinois, Panino said. This is because of the scores of underground mines in the area. Panno also said that Mihal’s sinkhole was caused by subsurface limestone that dissolves from acidic rainwater, melting snow, and carbon dioxide, which will, well, make you fall through it.

What happened next was just as unexpected.

Mihal’s wife, Lori, posted the story to GolfManna.com, a fledgling fantasy golf website that Mihal recently launched. Within hours the Associated Press called, and then many more after that. Mihal appeared on dozens of websites and major networks and had reporters camping out on his street and even on his lawn. The traffic to GolfManna.com rocketed from 500 to 1,000 hits a week to more than 200,000. Mihal did interviews with Good Morning America, Jim Rome, Howard Stern, and even an Australian radio station, and in the past two weeks, he’s turned down more than 200 more interview requests.

“I’ll be honest, I think it’s gotten kind of ridiculous,” he said with a laugh. “And really, I think the story’s just kind of embarrassing. I’m just glad I didn’t get hurt worse or get buried alive.”

His shoulder is totally wrecked. It has two fractures that he just had surgically repaired last Thursday by the St. Louis Cardinals’ orthopedic surgeon. Had to get screws put in and everything. He’s going to have to keep it immobilized for a month and a half, followed by four months of rehab, meaning he’s facing a mound of bills and he’s going to miss all the best of golf season. Annbriar said they would get back to him with their insurance information, but “they haven’t followed through,” Mihal said. “At least, not yet.”

On top of all that, he didn’t even get his winnings from that day. He actually lost money because he had to take the guys out to dinner as a thank you.

So when he’s all healed up, the first place Mihal’s going is back to Annbriar to finish that round and conquer his fears, right? Yeah—not so much, he said. “I kind of doubt I’ll be going back out there.”

Brandon Sneed is a writer based in North Carolina. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and he does Twitter as @brandonsneed.

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