It would seem I was in a precarious position. All that was between my finned feet and 5,000 feet of blue Pacific Ocean were some chicken wire, a few welded aluminum bars and a plethora of ominously fleeting shadows. I was 15 feet below the surface and imprisoned in a cage of frightfully small dimensions. Sharing my confining quarters were two other divers with whom I continually collided. Our tanks clanged together. We stepped on each other's fins. A nightmare? Some cruel torture or a test of my ability to cope with creeping claustrophobia? Not at all. This was exactly where I wanted to be, for outside the aluminum bars patrolled 40 sharks in the grips of a feeding frenzy.
The water around the cage was afloat with fish offal and tinted red with fish blood. Fish oil clung to my wetsuit like lint on wool and left its taste on my lips. I was smack dab in the middle of a shark picnic and enjoying every minute of it. How many people, I asked myself, get to see what most only watch on a Jacques Cousteau documentary from the detachment of an armchair?
Seeing sharks in their natural habitat is just one of many available experiences that are guaranteed to enthrall friends and family as well as lift one's adrenaline to intoxicating levels. Chalk it up as another testimonial to the happy explosion of adventure travel.
Once the province of the elite explorer class, the multibillion-dollar-a year industry has opened up a travel market that was unheard of just a few short years ago. James Trombly, a former vice president of marketing for Seattle climbing outfitter Mountain Madness, calls the phenomenon "living your dreams."
Mountain Madness was one of the outfitters of the disastrous expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996 that claimed the lives of eight people and was the grist for Jon Krakauer's best-seller Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. While claiming the life of its founder and inspiration Scott Fischer, the disaster, far from financially ruining the business, has put Mountain Madness on a heady roll. The small outfitter showed a profit for the first time in 1998, when it grossed more than $700,000, and fared equally well last year. Although the disaster was controversial in mountaineering circles, a waiting list of people is lined up to take part in the next expedition to Everest this year--at $65,000 a pop. Trombly doesn't see it as a passing phase.
"You're seeing the results of the fitness craze," Trombly says. "Remember the running boom of the late '70s? This is a natural outgrowth. Everybody wants to be fit. Being competitive is a big part of it, too. There are people out there who think that just because those people failed [Everest] doesn't mean I will. The adventure travel phenomenon is about achievement versus vacation. More and more people are opting for rock climbing in Thailand rather than a trip to Disney World."
Besides Everest and rock climbing in Thailand, Mountain Madness is filling trips to once exotic climbing venues such as Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro, Argentina's Aconcagua, Switzerland's Matterhorn, Alaska's Denali and Nepal's Ama Dablam. Trombly admits the money-flush baby boomers' well-known thirst for new experiences fits into the equation as well. You can analyze the trend to death, but what it comes down to is simply having fun on your free time, and fun is what I was having 60 miles out in the ocean off of San Diego. Here are some adventures guaranteed to get your heart pumping while raising your anxiety level.
A three-day trip to the offshore island of San Clemente with San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions promises an opportunity to spend some quality time in a reverse zoo situation. San Clemente is owned by the U.S. Navy, which uses the island for target practice (as evidenced by the burned-out shells of tanks and aircraft that litter the target zone and the circling supersonic fighter aircraft).
Drifting in the gentle current two miles offshore, the dive operators secure a shark cage to a mooring line, slowly empty air from the ballast tanks to sink the cages to the desired depth, and begin the process of chumming the water with chopped-up mackerel. It isn't long before the first blue shark approaches the boat and nudges the chum box with its prodigious snout. Once a number of sharks circle the boat, the dive leader dons his steel mesh suit, arms himself with a bang stick and escorts one diver at a time down into the cage. Buoyancy vests are deflated to anchor the divers to the floor of the cage.
The unnerving feeling of suspended animation quickly gives way to the wonder of beholding these toothy and much feared denizens of the deep as they swoop by with a grace that is spellbinding. Divers invariably expend all video and film in minutes; later they kick themselves for being so impetuous and missing that one-in-a-million shot that invariably comes after the film runs out. But not to worry. Before the day is out you'll be back in the cage for another 15-minute session, and there'll be two more days of it to follow. I got some great shots.
The beauty of the shark dive is that you don't have to be an experienced diver or have deep pockets. All you need be is a certified diver willing to shell out $825 for the experience. Getting certified requires a few hours a week over a month's time at your local Y pool and generally costs no more than $150. The $825 covers the boat charter (a bunk, all meals and refreshment), the diving, the guide and an experience of a lifetime. Compare that to a visit to Disney World or a few nights at the Plaza Hotel in New York, and you should come away thinking, as I did, that it's a bargain.
Want to step up a few notches to the top of the food chain? For $220 to $300 a day and three to 10 vacation days, you can dive the notorious haunts of the great white. Two and a half hours outside of Cape Town, South Africa, Shark Diving Expeditions can arrange for you to dive off a seal rookery on Dyer Island where an estimated 200 great whites are known to dine. Accommodations are at a bed-and-breakfast or an eco-lodge in nearby Walkers Bay, and side trips to big game parks and the southernmost point of Africa, Cape Agulhas, are optional. For more information on shark diving, call San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions at 1-888-SD-SHARK or check out its Web page: www.sdsharkdiving.com.
Wreck diving has always been the poor cousin of sport diving. Pretty fish and colorful reefs have been the main draw for those who like it wet. But the recent discovery of the remains of the Titanic has made diving shipwrecks hot. Long the preserve of the insular New York wreck-diving community, the wreck of the U.S.S. San Diego is getting a little more attention these days, and rightfully so.
The Navy's last armored cruiser was the only major warship lost by the United States during the First World War. She sank in 1918 after striking a mine that had been laid by a German U-boat. Six sailors lost their lives in the explosion that sent the San Diego to the Atlantic's bottom just 13.5 miles off of New York's Fire Island Inlet.
The wreck turtled as she sank and came to rest upside-down on the bottom 110 feet down. The behemoth 504-foot-by-70-foot vessel extends to 65 feet below the surface, so even novice divers can visit the last existing ship of Teddy Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet" and the former flagship of the Pacific Fleet. Plenty can be seen in visibility that generally runs between 20 and 80 feet.
Six-inch guns poke out from her turrets, and the ship's mast and smokestacks, what is left of them, rest in the sand on her starboard side. The explosion that ripped a hole in her port side and ignited her magazine is still visible. An easy penetration into the wreck can be made in the stern area, where 80 years in corrosive sea water have rotted away her iron hull, opening the engine room and stern ammunition room and exposing the propeller shafts to the open sea. The wreck site is also a favorite haunt of lobsters. Two- to twelve-pounders are routinely taken away.
Trained and experienced wreck divers can penetrate into the sick bay, supply room, crew quarters and magazine. Be forewarned: the wreck can be dangerous. Over the years divers have gotten lost inside and drowned. Of course, danger is part of the allure, along with the history, which can be touched and experienced by the lucky few who make this dive. The U.S.S. San Diego is within easy reach of the New York metropolitan area. Several dive boats make regular runs to her watery grave during the prime diving season of mid-April through the end of October. Contact the Long Island, New York, dive boats Wahoo (516-928-3849) or Sea Hawk (516-499-9107), or Staten Island, New York's John Jack (718-979-6338), or visit the Web page (www.wahoo2001.com). No-frills one-day trips run about $70 a diver.
DOG MUSHING IN ALASKA
If you've ever imagined what it would be like running a dog sled in the Iditarod, you can get a taste of it at the Denali West Lodge in Lake Minchumina, Alaska. Jack and Sherri Hayden built their lodge--literally carving it out of the wilderness--on this remote lake on the northwest corner of Denali National Park. Jack is a two-time veteran of the Yukon Quest, an Iditarod-like 1,000-mile mushing race considered to be the most difficult in the world.
Trips can be easy, such as 40-mile jaunts into Denali. But if you have six to nine days to spare, you might want to sign on for a full-scale mushing expedition. Dashing off on a trail to the distant Athabaskan Indian village of Nikolai is one possibility. Approximately 100 miles from the lodge to the village of 150 people, you will discover an unspoiled wilderness at which Jack London would have marveled. In a land populated by more moose, caribou, wolves and beavers than people, you will endure the numbing cold of sub-zero temperatures while careening across trails through northern arboreal forests, frozen lakes and rivers shadowed by the towering Denali (20,320 feet) and Mt. Foraker (17,400 feet), some of the tallest peaks in North America.
Clients get immersed in mushing from day one, when they are met at the bush airstrip by teams of dogs. All mushers are responsible for their own sleds and teams. Harnessing the dogs to the gang lines, breaking the teams down, feeding the animals, and preparing their bedding is all part of the gratifying experience.
Another mushing expedition worth considering is a trek through the wilderness area of Denali National Park to the face of the Straightaway Glacier, a river of ice that cuts a huge swath between Denali and Foraker. The nearest road is 100 miles away. The 160-mile round trip undulates through dense forests and across the Foraker River, where the trail has to be partially cut out and broken by snowshoe. Sleeping after 12 hours on the trail is never a problem--unless the howling of wolves keeps you up at night. Six- or nine-day mushing adventures run $2,860 and $5,280 a person. Call or fax the Denali West Lodge at 907-674-3112 or visit its Web site at www.alaskan.com/denaliwest.
CLIMBING THE WORLD'S MOST MASSIVE MOUNTAIN
If warmer climates are where you like to pursue your dreams, the 50th state has just as much to offer as the 49th. On the Big Island of Hawaii, the volcanic mountain of Mauna Loa towers 13,677 feet above Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Mauna Loa, Hawaiian for "Large Mountain," is the most massive mountain in the world. The lava that formed it could cover the earth to a depth of four feet; it is a hundred times the size of Washington's Mt. St. Helens.
If you were to measure the height of a mountain from where it raises from the depths of the Pacific, Mauna Loa would beat Everest by a good thousand feet. Climbing Mauna Loa, however, is not as difficult as its distant and dangerous Asian relative. The well-marked trail to the summit is 18 miles long over a difficult but not technical route (no ropes or hardware are needed).
Most climbers make their first stop 7.5 miles from the trailhead at the Pu'u'Ula'ula (Red Hill) cabin, at the 10,035-foot elevation mark. A cozy but spartan cabin complete with eight bunks awaits weary trekkers. For those not intimidated, the last 11 miles to the summit cabin is doable. But if you are like me and want to explore the eerie moon-like landscape of swirling lava formations, belching thermal vents and spatter cones, you can find shelter for the night in one of the many extinct lava tubes that course through the mountain between Pu'u'Ula'ula and the summit. Bring your woolies because altitude snow, ice and freezing temperatures are common here, even in the dead of summer.
Plan to spend an evening in the thin air at the summit cabin. While there, wander about in the ruins of the 1840 Wilkes Expedition and ponder the 3-by-1.5-mile-wide, steam-venting caldera on whose edge the summit cabin sits. Before turning in for the evening prepare yourself for one of the most spectacular sunsets anywhere, when Mauna Loa casts its vast shadow over the eastern horizon and the sun drops into the western Pacific beyond Maui and its Haleakala Volcano. You will never forget it.
You need to be in good physical condition to climb Mauna Loa. You'll also need a good pair of hiking boots, camping gear and provisions for the four days you should allot for the climb. Check in at park headquarters to let them know you will be on the mountain in case it blows its stack. For more information call the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park during business hours at 808-985-6000. 24 hour fax: 808-967-8186. On the Web: www.nps.gov/havo.
CAVING IN CARLSBAD, NEW MEXICO
In 1923 inspector Robert Holly, a surveyor sent by the U.S. Department of Interior, wrote the following of his first inspection of the now-famous Carlsbad Caverns: "I am wholly conscious of the feebleness of my efforts to convey in words the deep conflicting emotions, the feelings of fear and awe, and the desire for an inspired understanding of the Divine Creator's work which presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders."
No better words were ever written to describe the incredible sights that are entombed under the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. Two hundred and fifty million years ago the Guadalupes comprised an ocean reef. When the great inland sea dried up, it left behind the now 400-mile-long limestone mountain chain. Over the innumerable millennia, water containing hydrogen sulfide moved upwards along joints and fractures, mixing with fresh water and oxygen at the water table.
The combination produced sulfuric acid, which dissolved the limestone and created the caves in the Guadalupe Mountains. More than 500,000 tourists a year visit the main caverns, descending 750 feet by elevator.
As spectacular (and crowded) as the main caverns may be, most people are unaware that within the Carlsbad Caverns National Park 10 other equally beautiful cave systems there are set aside for recreational use, though these require a bit more exertion. Visiting these caves with park rangers is a good jumping-off point for the uninitiated. With a little experience you will be ready for a visit to the adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Carlsbad Field Office, where more than 175 known cave systems beg for some exploring, or as cavers say, "climbing dark."
These caves are not accessible by elevator, nor lit, nor--as you may have guessed--crowded. Climbing dark is not for the out-of-shape or claustrophobic. Two popular cave systems in the BLM-managed area that will test your aerobic conditioning and fearlessness are Parks Ranch Cave and Endless Cave. Both cave systems offer a wealth of challenging crawls and climbs, as well as a dark world of strange and beautiful geological formations that few venture down to see. Parks Ranch Cave is a 3.7-mile serpentine system that was carved out of the gypsum karst by running water.
In this area, called the Chosa Draw, the land is pocked with sinkholes, and the caves are, in effect, nature's storm drains. About 50 feet underground the cave has a unique eco-system that caters to the likes of small spiders and crickets with low eye function and pale pigment, and scuds and other fish that have never seen the light of day. Parks Ranch is a good initiation into caving, or spelunking, as the academics refer to it. While there are no difficult climbs or precipitous drops, some tight squeezes will have you sucking in your gut.
Endless Cave is much more difficult. You will need a permit from the BLM office in Carlsbad, which limits incursions due to the cave's fragile rock formations that defy description. Deeper than Parks Ranch, Endless is your classic limestone cave system complete with stalactites (hanging calcium deposits) and stalagmites (standing deposits). There are several vertical climbs and narrow holes to negotiate.
Descriptive names of the rooms such as Mud Crack, Gypsum, Easy Chair, Green Lake, Grand Canyon, War Club and the Express-way are a good indication of what you will find 80 feet below the earth's surface. Caving in Carlsbad is a year-round endeavor because the temperature is always between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit underground. As well as a pair of hiking boots and some durable clothing that you won't mind getting wet and muddy, purchase a helmet with a good primary light and two backup lights.
In Carlsbad Caverns National Park, guided hikes through the less trafficked cave systems are available by reservation. In the field office area you can pick up maps and obtain permits for the 16 caves on the protected list at its office in the city of Carlsbad. Then you are on your own. Make a point of stopping at the Guadalupe Mountain Outfitters at 216 South Canal in Carlsbad (505-885-9492) for caving gear and advice. For more information contact: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220. Phone: 505-785-2232. On the Web: www.nps.gov/cave. or the BLM-Carlsbad Field Office, 620 East Green Street, Carlsbad, NM 88220. Phone: 505-887-6544.
CAMEL TREKKING IN THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK
It is hard to imagine that an adventure as exotic as mounting a camel and plodding across the Australian Outback for five days is a vacation option. But believe it, because you can do it. Just three miles southeast of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory is the Frontier Camel Farm, located in the midst of the picturesque Simpson Desert near the center of the continent. Camels were introduced to this area more than 100 years ago and today more than 200,000 roam wild in this no man's land of red sand dunes and the imposing Ayers Rock. These dromedaries are particularly suited to the hostile environment, where you can see such native species as kangaroo, desert oak, ghost gums and the garishly colored rock ridges that rise high above the open plains.
Clients are provided with their own camel. Pack camels carry all camping gear and food for the Monday to Friday trek. Starting in Maryvale, the guided trek strikes out along the ancient Charlotte Range and the Hugh River to Chambers Pillar, a sentinel of stone that rises 150 feet from the desert floor. The experience of sleeping outdoors for four nights in a swag (sleeping bag) under the brilliantly bejeweled southern skies, will dazzle you.
You will need to be in good shape to withstand the physically demanding regimen of five days on a camel's back. The $900-a-person tariff covers all transfers, camels, meals, camping equipment, skilled guides and accommodations at the Maryvale Cattle Station. The camel treks are offered during April, May, August and September. For more information contact Frontier Camel Tours at 011 (08) 8953-0444. Fax: 001 (08) 8955-5015. On the Web: www.ozemail.com.au/~camelfro or www.cameltours.com.au.
Stateside racing schools get a lot of ink these days and seem to be top choices for Michael Andretti and Jeff Gordon wannabes. But if you are really serious about learning the skills that will take you around a professional race course at top speeds, the place you should head for is the Circuit Paul Ricard located on the French Riviera. As they say, "location, location, location!"
John Peterson, a former professional racer, handles all American bookings for the prestigious Winfield School. Peterson says the big difference between Winfield and its American counterparts is that the Winfield School does not overload you with information. It is a very European approach to instruction in which students are taught more about "how you do it" rather than "why you do it." That translates into more track time.
Another difference is the cars. At Winfield the school is intent on training drivers for the Formula One Circuit. That means you will be behind the wheel of a modern racing car that was built after 1996. Cars have new two-liter, 135-horsepower engines, monocoque chassis and wings. By the end of the three-day course you will have your engines revving and find yourself screaming around this home of the French Grand Prix.
Winfield is more a grueling school than a holiday camp, as well as being extremely competitive. The reason? The best-performing students are awarded certificates of merit by the instructors, who are also talent scouts for professional racing in Europe. With a certificate of merit you are invited to take the next step and enroll in an advanced driving course. If you show that you're a born talent for high-combustion, rubber-burning, balls-out racing, Winfield will point the way to joining the ranks of such former students as Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jean Alesi.
The three-day course runs $3,295, and is offered once a month from February through October. The price includes all meals and accommodations for five days in the Mediterranean resort town of Nîmes, which puts it in the price range of most American schools. Contact Franam Racing at 612-541-9461. Fax: 612-541-1380.
Who among us has never dreamed of piloting their own aircraft? The reason most people don't realize the dream is the time commitment and the expense of obtaining a pilot's license. And let's not forget the cost of owning and operating one's own plane. There is an alternative plan of action. It's less time-consuming, considerably cheaper--and foremost--a purer pursuit for those who want to experience the thrill of flying. Some call it gliding, others sky sailing, but at the Schweizer School it is called soaring.
Located in the "Soaring Capital of America," the lush Southern Finger Lake District of Elmira, New York, the Schweizer Soaring School has history and location on its side. A former manufacturer of gliders, Schweizer has operated the school since 1946. The airport is ringed by ridges and mountains, which provide the updrafts that lift these delicate-looking aircraft high into the clouds.
If you are not quite sure that this is the adventure for you, Schweizer suggests taking two test flights with an instructor which can be arranged at a soaring center near you. That's all it takes to get most people hooked. Sign up for the one-week course that will have you soaring in as many as five flights a day that last 15 to 20 minutes. If you show an aptitude you could be soloing by the last day. Want a license to fly solo? Ante up for the extra week and you, too, can earn the coveted wings of a Federal Aviation Administration private glider.
The basic course costs $1,150; the two-week course that gets you a license costs $2,200. Contact the Schweizer Soaring School at 607-739-3821, fax: 607-739-4516. Sail planes can be had for as little as $7,000, fuel not included--or necessary. And you thought you could never afford to be a proud owner of an aircraft.
Oh, yes. Still considering a death-defying climb of Everest? If so, contact Mountain Madness at 800-328-5925, fax: 206-937-1772, or on the Web: www.mountainmadness.com. A spot on the next expedition may be opening. Remember, you only live once.
Kevin F. McMurray is a freelance writer specializing in outdoor adventure. He lives in Brewster, New York