Popular Mechanics: Piloting a Hovercraft

I’m 30 seconds into my first hovercraft solo when things start to go wrong. Zipping along near a sandbar in the middle of the Wisconsin River, I’m cranking around into my first turn and I find myself gradually losing speed.

Soon I’m dead in the water. I gun the throttle. The engine screams, and water sprays up over the gunwales in sheets. It’s like sitting in a car wash, one that’s getting carried away downstream. I turn the handlebars this way and that, but the only thing that changes is the direction of the drenching. All I can do is open the throttle all the way and aim toward the sandbar. Crawling along, I pay for each inch of progress with a bucketful of spray. At last, I reach terra firma. Never before have I been so soaked and so relieved.

“Okay,” says my instructor, Bill Zang, who’s been watching from land. “There’s something I need to tell you about how this works.” Continue reading Popular Mechanics: Piloting a Hovercraft

Travel + Leisure: Driving Hawaii’s Big Island

“Buy land—they’re not making any more of it,” the saying goes. Well, that’s not quite true on the Big Island of Hawaii, where at this moment molten rock is spilling into the Pacific, making the state’s biggest, newest island even bigger and newer. And the lava isn’t all that’s fresh on the scene. In the November 2013 issue of Travel +Leisure I plot out nine red-hot reasons to visit right now. Check it out on newsstands! In the meantime, as a teaser, here are four of my favorites:

Volcano House Lodge, Volcano, HI

#1: Volcano House. The only hotel in America that’s perched on the lip of an active volcanic caldera, this iconic National Park Service Lodge has just reopened after a four-year closure and renovation. On a clear night, step outside your room and watch the glow of a subterranean lava lake reflected in the billowing plume.

Continue reading Travel + Leisure: Driving Hawaii’s Big Island

Happy 100th Birthday to The Great American Road

reno markerThe freedom of the open road — the ability to get on the highway and drive wherever your heart takes you – seems like such a fundamental part of the American character that it’s hard to imagine the country without a coast-to-coast highway network. And yet, at the beginning of the last century, paved roads were unknown outside of city centers. The prospect of driving a horseless carriage any significant distance seemed fraught with outlandish dangers. Then a group of visionary automobile enthusiasts came up with a wildly futuristic plan: to establish a motorway across the whole breadth of the North American continent. At the time, this seemed as far-out as the Hyperloop does today. No one had ever conceived of building a road that long before, let alone figured out how to pay for it, so instead of actually building a new road the group just picked out a route from New York to San Fransisco by linking together of a series of pre-existing roads, tracks and trails, nearly all of it dirt and some it simply open desert. They called the resulting line on a map the Lincoln Highway and announced the route to the public on September 14, 1913.

To begin with, the Lincoln Highway had no official status. It was really nothing more than an idea. But it was such a powerful one that the idea of driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific caught on. Even Emily Post gave it a try. The great adventure captured the public imagination and galvanized political will to get the government involved in building new roads. So you could say that we owe our sacred automotive freedom to a master stroke of public relations. I wrote about my own trip on the Lincoln Highway–or what still remains of it a century later–for Travel +Leisure. You can read the whole thing here.


Kitzbühel: Austria’s Alpine High

[This article originally appeared in the December, 2012 issue of Travel + Leisure.]

Midwinter dusk falls as gently as snow on the mountain village, its timbered buildings huddled beneath the towers of its twin medieval churches. Shop windows spill their light onto snow-dusted sidewalks as I make my way through the archway of the town’s ancient gate, then pause to let a team of carriage horses clip-clop past. Stepping quickly through the winter cold, I slip down a pedestrian passageway, hang a right on a narrow cobbled street, and soon arrive at Hans Frauenschuh, a shop built in the traditional Austrian farmhouse style, with long wooden balconies on the upper floors and a pitched roof, now laden with snow. A friend who grew up in the village has insisted that I drop in: this, she promises, is the real Kitzbühel. Continue reading Kitzbühel: Austria’s Alpine High

I’ll Try Anything: Riding Shotgun with Aerobatic Champ Kirby Chambliss

Every year Kirby Chambliss, a five-time national aerobatic champion and Red Bull racer, performs his airshow routine for the crowd at the EAA Airventure fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It’s a gut-churning spectacle, an aggressive, low-altitude sequence of end-over-end tumbles, tail slides, flat spins, at what have you. Having ridden along with a few aerobatic pilots in the past, my main thought while watching Chambliss has always been: Thank God I’m not in that plane.

Then a few days before this year’s show I got an email from a PR representative at GoPro, one of Chambliss’ sponsors, asking me if I wanted to go along for a ride. My first reaction was to shudder. But as someone who writes a column called “I’ll Try Anything,” I feel a necessity to keep an open mind about things. So I said yes.

I met Chambliss and his team at 8am at a hanger at the north end of the field. The plane, a half-million dollar custom job that’s entirely built in the United States, was a gleaming work of art in aluminum tubing and carbon fiber: Strong, powerful, precise. “No matter what you do to this plane in the air, you can’t break it,” Chambliss assured me. I zipped into a flight suit, strapped on a parachute, and climbed into the front seat.

The drawback to flying at Oshkosh is that there are always a ton of airplanes trying to land and take off, making for long waits in the sweltering heat. By the time we finally were ordered to lineup on the runway, the prospect of getting up into the cool clean air with Chambliss was actually starting to seem appealing.

We climbed to 3000 feet, and the show began. Continue reading I’ll Try Anything: Riding Shotgun with Aerobatic Champ Kirby Chambliss

Everest’s Psychological Trap

This past Saturday, four people died trying to summit Everest, making it one of the deadliest days ever on the mountain. This weekend, another crowd of some 200 climbers are expected to push for the summit, meaning that the death toll could well rise still further.

What makes Everest the most dangerous mountain on Earth? The extreme environment is only part of the equation. Yes, the summit zone is fantastically cold and storm-lashed, and the air is so thin that an unacclimatized person would die within minutes. But all of that would be only moderately dangerous, were it not for a fourth, more elusive factor: the psychologically warping effect of the summit itself, a phenomenon I call a “mind trap.” In this kind of situation, our ability to make a correct decision becomes dangerously skewed, so that a small error can quickly snowball into an irrecoverable fatal accident. There are different kinds of mind traps, that can snare victims under different types of circumstance, as I wrote about in a recent Psychology Today article. The one that tends to claim Everest climbers is a variety called “red lining.”

Mountain climbing at extreme altitudes is a race against time. Human endurance is severely limited in the face of extreme cold and limited oxygen, and windows of good weather can shut abruptly. Lingering too long is an invitation to disaster, so when preparing their final push to the summit, mountaineers need to set a turn-around time – a “red line” that they must abide by it strictly.

But anytime we plan a mission that requires us to set this kind of safety parameter, there’s a risk that in the heat of the moment we’ll be tempted to overstep it. Divers see an interesting wreck or coral formation just beyond the maximum limit of their dive tables. Airplane pilots making an instrument approach descend through clouds to their minimum safe altitude, fail to see the runway, and decide to go just a little bit lower.

In the case of Everest, many climbers have spent tens of thousands of dollars and endured long, tough training to get within striking distance of the summit. They’re a self-selected group, driven and goal-oriented. As the turnaround deadline draws near, the temptation to push beyond it can be overwhelming. “In some cases, they don’t even heed the suggestions of their Sherpa guides,” Zimba Zangbu Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told The New York Daily News. “The Sherpas can’t advise them otherwise because their clients will think ‘I’m so close to the mountain, why shouldn’t I try a bit more?'”

The pressure has become even greater in recent years due to the ever-increasing crowd of would-be summiters. The route to the top is only so big, so on promising days hundreds of climbers can be seen threading up in single file. The biggest traffic jam of all awaits at the Hillary Step, a rock face just short of the summit that requires a technical climb. As each climber waits his turn, often for hours, his oxygen supplies are dwindling and his feet and hands are growing ever cooler. With each passing minute, the danger grows greater, and so does the perceived urgency to press on.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think: I’ll just go over a little bit. What difference will it make? The problem is that once we go over the red line, there are no more boundaries. Nothing’s calling you back to the safe side. And in a brutally tough environment like Everest, once mother nature’s jaws slam shut, there may be no one to help you.

Surviving Fear Under the Ice

I'm still not sure this is a good idea. (Photo by Isabelle Dubois)

You can study the psychology of fear until the cows come home; it’s not going to do much to keep your heebie-jeebies under control when you’re about to jump into a gap in six-foot-thick sea ice.

I shuffle closer to the edge of the five-by-five foot hole that’s been chainsawed into the ice. I have no real reason to be jumping into the frozen-over Hudson Bay. I’ve come up here for a totally different reason—to do a story about igloo building for a men’s magazine. But the trip’s organizers added a couple of extra days onto my itinerary so that I could get a taste for the local Inuit culture—riding on a dogsled, eating raw caribou meat — oh, and going scuba diving under the sea ice. Care to give it a try, Mr. Wise?

I couldn’t say no. Stunts like this are basically what I do for a living. I’m a magazine writer specializing in experiential adventures like skydiving, surfing, and survival training. Along the way, I developed an interest in the psychology of intense pressure and wrote a book on it. So though the idea of scuba diving under ice scares the crap out of me, that’s all the more reason I should do it.

And it does scare the crap out of me. Immersion in 32 degree water sounds bad enough, but to be trapped under six feet of ice as well? There’s a section of my book about how deadly that kind of thing can be. If a diver panics, the instinctive response is to rip away anything that blocks the airway – in this case, the regulator. In an enclosed space far from the surface, there may be no chance to recover from that mistake. Ironically, just knowing that the possibility exists makes it more likely to happen. “Well, let’s see how it goes,” I tell the organizers.

I’m being weasel-y, but with good reason. Continue reading Surviving Fear Under the Ice