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Francois Bon: Speed Rider, Crazy Mofo

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine that was running a feature of the “Best of Adventure” of 2008 when I came across a little blurb on Francois Bon’s amazing trip down Argentina’s 22,834-foot Aconcagua.

What makes it so amazing is the way he came down the mountain.  Bon trekked all the way to the top just so that he could slap on some skis and a parachute, then fly down the side of the mountain 9,000 feet (in only four minutes and 50 seconds!).  Bon was airborne for most of the ride, occasionally touching down on the snow.  Watch the YouTube video of his “speed ride” here.  Trust me, it’s worth watching the whole thing, unless you get sick…


Backpacking through Rockhouse Canyon

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley

On a small ridge running through Mojave Valley


Well, I took my first backpacking trip.  I got my last piece of “necessary” gear – a packable stove – and I had a few days left of vacation, so there were no more excuses.  It was a success!  Mostly. 

Naturally, I chose Rockhouse Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park as my first destination.  For those of you who know me, I’m obsessed with the desert, and more specifically, the Anza Borrego desert.  I’ve gone there nearly a dozen times over the last six or seven years, and every time I discover something new.  This visit was no different.  I had been on Rockhouse Canyon Road before but had never taken it the full 9.6 miles to the junction between Rockhouse Canyon and Butler Canyon in the northeast corner of the park.

The challenge before Mike (my roommate) and I: finish the Rockhouse Canyon loop, measuring 24.7 miles, in two days.  Lowell and Diane Lindsay describe the trail in Backpacking California, a sizeable compendium of short backpacking hikes all over California put together by serious backpackers.  The Lindsays note that the trail should be completed in two to three days.  I only had two days to hike, so were left with little choice but to complete the hike in those two days. 

Mike and I arrived in Borrego Springs, the small town surrounded on all sides by state park, at 11:30 at night on Thursday, planning to pitch a tent at a primitive site near town.  Whenever I arrive in the desert this late, I always choose to camp at Yaqui Well, which lies at the intersection of S-2 and S-3, across the way from the more developed Tamarisk Grove campground.  Yaqui Well is a great place to pitch a quick tent at night because the ground is relatively flat.  It’s in a wash, so the dirt is soft to the touch.  And the vegetation is mostly friendly, with very little cactus in the area.  For people who have never been to the desert, Yaqui Well is a rehearsal for the real show.  It’s relatively close to the highway, so the desert silence is intermittent, as you’ll probably hear cars drive by in the night.  For some reason, I couldn’t sleep much that night.  Once I got it in my head that I couldn’t fall asleep, it was all over.  I was destined to toss and turn all night. 

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Sun rising at Yaqui Well

Friday morning came, and the first order of business was to grab a hearty breakfast at Kendall’s in The Mall.  We ordered Kendall’s Big Breakfasts, and big breakfasts are what we got – two pancakes, two eggs, hash browns, two sausages, two bacon and giant slab of ham.  We were done by 7:15, so we headed out to Rockhouse Canyon Road, about 5 miles northeast of town.  Traveling at a safe speed, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the junction of Butler and Rockhouse canyons.  You can either drive the next 3.1 miles if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, or you can hike it.  I was borrowing my dad’s SUV, so I decided not to risk breaking down in the middle of the desert from slashing a tire and damaging the undercarriage.

We set out for the hike at about 8:30 am at the canyon junction (elevation 1200 feet), eager to knock out a good number of miles before we broke for lunch.  I put my pack on for the first time since I backpacked through Europe and my back was aching within 5 minutes!  I almost panicked before I adjusted the waist straps so that most of the weight was sitting on my hips.  Much better. 

The first 3.1 miles are kind of drab, following vehicle tracks to the beginning of the canyon.  At 3.6 miles we reached Hidden Springs, which is kind of a misnomer.  Yes, it is hidden, because it barely exists.  But that means it’s not hidden because it’s not there in the first place.  How about “Springs Just Kidding,” or “Bet Your Guidebook Says There Are Springs Here.”  Just as another blogger had warned, the only water at Hidden Springs was indeed hidden behind foot-long reeds but contained only about two cups of water.  But we didn’t come here for no water!  After all, we had packed 5 gallons of water for two days, and it was already taking its toll on our backs, legs and waists.


The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The "Hidden Springs" near the beginning of Rockhouse Canyon

The real treasures of Rockhouse Canyon lay beyond Hidden Springs, where the canyon begins to narrow, and giant boulders of all types of rock are strewn in different formations across the shaded canyon floor.  The guidebook instructed us to hop a few boulders about 15 yards before a huge granitic barrier blocks the way up the canyon.  It took us about 15 minutes to figure out how we were supposed to get up, but we eventually spotted a few ducks left by previous hikers and scrambled our way up the canyon. 

Rockhouse Canyon eventually opens up to the Mojave Valley, which houses several Indian rock house ruins.  These rectangular rock houses sit on a small ridge in the middle of the valley and consist of rocks stacked about 3 to 4 feet high.  Some people set up camp inside the houses, but we were only halfway, with several miles to go, so we moved on. 

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

One of three Indian rock houses in Mojave Valley

Following the banks of the wash on the western edge of the valley, we reached Alder Canyon, which held even more impressive rock formations.  You never know what the desert holds beyond the bend.  Bland desert landscapes can suddenly turn into gorgeous ridges of sprawling ocotillos, otherwordly wind caves, or narrow canyons littered with fallen boulders.  Like I said, I always find something new in Anza Borrego, and I’m sure the same will be true for my next trip.

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

The junction of Alder Canyon and Nicholias Canyon

At 2800 feet in elevation and well into Alder Canyon, we reached a meeting point between Alder and Nicholias canyons.  Of course, the book told us this (well, not exactly), and the elevation listed in the book was almost accurate with my GPS, but seeing as how there were three 10 foot dry waterfalls that we needed to pull ourselves over in order to get into Nicholias Canyon, we figured that it couldn’t be the way.  An hour and a half later, the sun dipping behind the mountains and our chances at reaching Cottonwood Bench Camp at 4800 feet slipping away, we ended up a few hundred feet farther than the point at which we began to doubt ourselves.  We had tried to backtrack to a point where we could scramble up the side of the eastern side of the canyon, walk along the ridge toward the junction, and figure out which way Nicholias Canyon bent.  But the only thing the ridge was good for was cactus pricks, slippery rocks, and virtually no way of moving around at a decent pace.  By 4:15 we were finally in Nicholias Canyon, beyond the waterfalls, but in no mood or position to go any further.  We pitched the tent in the only clearing around, surrounded by cactus.  The wind would be rough that night, and the cold was bitter (at least by my standards).  Mike built a fire while I cooked up some steak and potato soup and dehydrated Mexican chicken and rice (not half bad). 

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

This clearing in Nicholias Canyon just big enough to fit the tent.

So we had reached 4000 feet in elevation where we had set a goal to reach 4800 feet, but I wasn’t too upset.  I knew that I would get back here again and understand how to complete the loop.  Here, we only had two days, so we knew our only choice was to head back down from the camp in the morning.  The wind was relentless that night, but I wouldn’t know because I had a few shots of whiskey and a Tylenol PM that knocked me right out.  I needed the sleep, because I had only gotten a couple hours the night before.

After making a tasteless meal of oatmeal mixed with some leftover trail mix, and a good cup of coffee, we set out for Day 2.  The soreness was evident from the beginning but nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and of course our pace was much faster going downhill.  Ultimately, we were back at the car by 2:30 in the afternoon, and though our feet were killing us for the last three miles, it was generally a relaxing hike (with no fear of getting lost).

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Mike getting ready for Day 2

Back in town, for lunch we headed to the Red Ocotillo at the Palms Hotel and sat poolside with Bud Lights.  The other patrons must have thought we were bums.  We limped to our table, scruffy beards and all, unashamed that we smelled.  A good beer, a great sandwich, and the satisfaction that we had just hiked 25 miles out of shape.  Next time, I’ll finish the loop.

Back at the car, after 25 miles

Back at the car, after 25 miles




5 Things Wrong with Major League Soccer

Soccer in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds since it started to grow popular as a spectator sport (beyond the youth games at local parks) in the early 1990s.  With a growing fanbase for soccer eager to watch competitive games in the United States and an increasingly talented corps of recent college athletes eager to play at home, Major League Soccer opened its doors in 1996.  Since then, MLS has grown to become a (somewhat) legitimate league that (sometimes) compete with the elite teams from Mexico, Central America and South America.

Perhaps the slow, steady rate of growth the MLS was experiencing up until a few years ago was not enough – last year it made big waves when it signed David Beckham to a deal worth up to $250 million over 5 years to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  The MLS insists that it wasn’t putting all its eggs into one (overaged) basket, but the evidence is on the field: while attendance for Beckham games has been outstanding, attendance figures show that the league has failed to produce new fans that will show up when Beckham isn’t around.

Signing Beckham was not the wrong thing to do.  But the MLS needed to complete the picture before they did so.  The media circus surrounding Beckham’s arrival was in one sense a public relations boon, but it inevitably painted Beckham as a savior of the sport in this country and placed unreasonable expectations and scrutiny on a league unprepared to handle it.  Now, with the media expecting more from the league, making their inner workings ever more transparent, glaring weaknesses have been exposed that, compared to established leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB, have crippled the league’s legitimacy in the eyes of the media and soccer fans.

I’ll continue to watch MLS games and support the Galaxy because I love soccer, and it’s fun to head to the Home Depot Center and catch a game.  But the league frustrates me to no end.  Here are five things that the MLS has done wrong and that it doesn’t seem to understand:

5.  The MLS doesn’t understand its fan base

I will give the MLS credit for organizing with Chivas of Guadalajara in the creation of Chivas USA.  Given the fanbase that already exists in Los Angeles for the most-celebrated and popular side in Mexican history, they’ve created a team that would immediately strike a proud chord in Southern California.  They started with a side that consisted almost exclusively of Latin players and have slowly integrated into the league with players from all over the globe.  In this sense, and through what it has done with Toronto FC, it does understand its fan base.

But what the league does not understand is that sports fans, above anything else, love a winner.  If they can’t have a winner, then they want an organization dedicated to building a winner.  The MLS is hell-bent on modeling its system after the Barclay’s Premier League in England, which since the mid-90s has proven to be a gigantic success.  But the Premier League does not value parity among its teams.  The league elites always land at the top of the standings, the ones in the middle scramble for a chance to play in one of the European tournaments, and the ones at the bottom are just trying to stay in the league. 

If the MLS wants to be successful, it needs to model its league after domestic leagues in other sports – the NBA, NFL and MLB for example – where each team has a pretty good shot at winning sometime in the near future.  If they’re losers, then at least there’s hope.  How do you do this?  Don’t always assign the best international signees to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.  Spread the wealth.  Be fair.  Give yourself some legitimacy.

4.  The MLS surrounded David Beckham with a bunch of nobodies

Let’s be realistic.  When David Beckham was deciding whether or not to come to the MLS, he was only going to one of two places – Los Angeles and New York.  And even though Becks loves New York City, I’m sure the only real choice was Los Angeles. 

Problem is, there were no other considerations involved.  If Beckham wanted to go to Los Angeles, there would be nothing the MLS could do about it.  But by throwing Beckham into a mix of young, unexperienced players (and Landon Donovan), it assured that the Galaxy would fall further down the standings than it was the year before.  The results?  The Galaxy failed to qualify for the playoffs last year, and this year they are on pace to miss them again, currently on a 10-game winless streak (5 losses and 5 ties).  It’s almost embarassing to think that Beckham could miss the playoffs (what should be the MLS’s premier attraction instead of the All-Star game) his first two years here, and possibly beyond. 

They tried to remedy the situation this year by hiring Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit to coach the team, but that experiment failed after only 20 games.  Gullit had expressed his frustration at having to coach young players were not well-schooled in the fundamentals of the game, and he admonished Galaxy management when they allowed a stadium usher to fill in for an undermanned Galaxy developmental team.  No wonder he left.

Now Bruce Arena and the MLS are left to pick up the pieces.  First order: get someone who can actually play defense.

3.  The MLS schedules regular season games that conflict with national team games

As Grahame L. Jones of the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the MLS makes the mistake of scheduling regular season games near dates when national team games around the world are being played.  Nearly no other league does this. 

This weekend, Toronto FC will be missing 9 of its 11 starters to national team call-ups for its game against Chivas USA.  In addition to starters and bench players who are injured, this creates a situation where Toronto will essentially be fielding a developmental team. 

This is an affront to season ticket holders who expect to see a professional team on the field every game.  The same thing happens to the Galaxy – Landon Donovan and David Beckham are always gone for call-ups, giving the Galaxy a rather dull product on the field and a ZERO chance of winning.  If I’m a season ticket holder, I’m selling my tickets for those games.

2.  The MLS does not abide by its own rules

The MLS has a designated player rule whereby each team gets the same number of “designated players” (marquee signings of players arriving from abroad) to keep the league competitive.  Most teams, especially ones that aren’t in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, have only one designated player.  With the David Beckham signing, the Galaxy had three designated players – Beckham, Donovan and Carlos Ruiz. 

This was not the first time it happened.  When Donovan came back to the United States from a brief stint with Germany’s Bayern Leverkusen, the San Jose Earthquakes still owned the rights to him.  The league forced San Jose to trade the rights to Donovan to the Galaxy, which the league thought would be the better fit for its best player. 

Funny, the Galaxy has benefitted from breaches of the rules, yet they haven’t been able to make the playoffs in either of the last two years (and probably this year too).

1.  The MLS cannot keep young American talent from going abroad

I may be placing too much blame on the MLS, but while they have garnered a lot of new talent from abroad, especially South America, it has failed to keep the players who would have become the true stars of the league.  At times, there is little the league can or should do about it when an exceptional young player wants to leave.  But a confluence of factors – some of which I have described above – contribute a player’s leaving his own country to play abroad, and it’s not just the competition.

It was a foregone conclusion that Jozy Altidore, an explosive young striker who played for the New York Red Bulls, would leave for Europe.  But other players like Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan and Kenny Cooper are players who have the ability to play in top-flight leagues in Europe but will probably not become stars. 

When the MLS loses domestic players to second division teams in Norway (this is happening), you know they are at least partly to blame.

If you want to build an attractive soccer product, it starts with the quality of play.  If you want to build the quality of play, it starts with keeping what should already have been yours.