Mastering the Maelstrom

Mastering the Maelstrom

Canyoneering San Antonio Falls

            The breeze gently flirted with my bare legs. The sun caressed my exposed shoulders. Feathery wisps of clouds floated across the cobalt sky. It was a perfect 75-degree day. So why was my entire body shivering uncontrollably as if it had been submerged in ice water?

            I couldn’t tell if I was cold or just plain terrified. I hesitantly stepped backward, inching closer and closer to the precipice.

            I couldn’t see down. All I could hear was the deafening roar of water crashing against boulders somewhere far below. As I reached the edge of the ledge, the full scene came into focus. I gaped down the face of a 90-foot waterfall, surging through a narrow crevasse.

            It was now time for me to test my harness, the rope and my nerve.


            Alpine Training Services conducts guided outdoor adventure courses and extreme excursions. I’d joined one of their canyoneering expeditions, which includes hiking up mountains, and rappelling down waterfalls – plus a little bushwhacking, rock climbing, and scrambling.

            Our adventure began in the quiet Southern California town of Glendora, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, where ATS was founded. We met in the parking lot of the local Sports Chalet at 9 a.m. to sign all the legal waivers and divvy out the necessary equipment. I was the first one there to meet our guides: Gavin Santillan, one of the most highly skilled ATS guides and David Redman, an avid adventure climber and canyoneer, who had started working for ATS eight months prior.

            When a beat-up faded blue Dodge Neon pulled up, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my team-mates were European: Regina Heumpfner and Toby Dippert from Germany and Sandra Fischerlehner from Austria.

            Regina was timid and nervous-looking, with golden brown hair. Sandra was a thin, energetic, fearless, Converse-wearing wild woman. Both work in Los Angeles as au pairs. Toby, with flawless good looks, a taut physique, and a constant dazzling smile, was visiting friends and exploring California.

            We packed safety harnesses, helmets, and splash tops into our packs and started on our way. We all opted to caravan in our own cars to cut down on time getting back to our final locations for the evening.

            We entered Angeles National Forest ascending a narrow winding road into the wilderness. After a few short miles we climbed the mountainous peaks along Mt Baldy Road cautiously navigating harrowing turns. We inhaled delicious gulps of smog free air and in the distance I caught a glimpse of the steel-blue sea. 

            Thirty minutes from our starting point we arrived at San Antonio Falls, elevation 6,500 feet. We listened excitedly as Gavin reviewed safety guidelines and outlined the day’s activities.

            Suddenly, I got a whiff of something foul: The Europeans were smoking. Definitely not what I expected. I decided that I was too happy to let it ruin my day and stayed upwind from the trio.

On the Road

            We threw on our packs, clipped our buckles, and started on the trail. As we hiked, I could feel the effects of elevation. I was winded, weak, and slightly mystified at how the cigarette-smoking Europeans effortlessly past me.

            After 15 grueling minutes, we rounded a corner and my jaw dropped as the falls came into view. Gavin pointed out six different routes we would rappel. From where we stood, the feat didn’t seem so daunting. “They don’t look very scary,” Sandra said.

            To get to the first descent, we had to trudge up the sheer rocky mountain. As we climbed carefully, reality hit. These gorges were far from the tiny mounds they appeared to be. As we approached the spot for our first descent, Regina’s eyes widened, “scheisse.”

            This 60-foot waterfall was the smallest we would tackle.

Ready or Not

            After Gavin and David hooked up the anchoring system I was happy to be the first one to jump. “Are you right or left handed?” asked Gavin. This determines which side of the body the rope goes on. The dominant hand has the important role of braking as a climber moves inch by inch down the rope.

            I inched down the sleek granite slab, making sure I kept my feet hip-width apart and my legs at a 90-degree angle. As I jerked my way down the incline, I started to get a feel for the technique. When I reached solid ground and steadied my footing, I unscrewed my carabineer, unhooked myself from the rope, and picked a good spot to watch the others.

            One-by-one Toby, Sandra, and Regina descended the falls.  This was definitely a good route to warm up with and get our bearings.

            As we moved on to the next course, I noticed Regina squatting on her knees behind a boulder. She looked up with bloodshot eyes and fear painted on her face.

            “Regina had mild heat exhaustion yesterday and she’s afraid of heights,” explained Sandra.”

Into the Abyss

            Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable we reached an 80-foot overhang. My chest tightened as my heart raced. We weren’t allowed to get close to the ledge unless we were strapped onto the rope, so all I could see was a river of water snaking through the eroded gully, disappearing somewhere into the abyss.

            I watched from above as one-by-one Toby, Regina, and Sandra disappeared with terrified looks on their faces. When it was my turn, Gavin instructed me to “feel for the outcrop just below the edge.”

            I leaned back and put my trust in the safety equipment. I “free rappelled” sliding down the rope away from the wall. The rope hung free from the cliff. The first and subsequent routes were “standard rappels” where we lowered ourselves down with our backs toward the ground and feet in contact with the rock. 

            My fear subsided as I reached the bottom seamlessly. The rope held up to its end of the bargain. After many high fives, we scrambled onto a nearby boulder for a much needed lunch-break. I gorged on a delectable medley of trail mix, beef jerky, and a turkey wrap that I had prepared at home.

 Catastrophe Curbed

            All of a sudden, I heard “Oh no!” and thump, thump, thump. Sandra had taken off her helmet and it rolled down the hill out of sight. Even though one of the safety rules was “don’t remover your helmet,” David cheerfully came to the rescue. He quickly located the missing helmet and effortlessly rappelled down 10 meters to retrieve it. Catastrophe curbed.

Moment of Truth

            After we ate, drank, and reapplied sunscreen, it was time for the moment we had all waited for. Time to rappel right through a monstrous waterfall which would completely submerge us. I jumped at the chance to go first.

            As I slowly lowered myself, the gaping mouth of the roaring waterfall lured me in. To reach the bottom I’d have to pass through the ice-cold, body-shocking grip of this powerful force.

            “When you go under the waterfall, it will take your breath away,” Gavin had warned. “Some people freeze. Do not look up, it will disorient you.”

            I took a deep breath and dropped into the maelstrom. The pounding torrent hammered my indomitable yellow helmet. The chill numbed, but I didn’t freeze. As I passed through the 10-foot girth of the falls, my fear became pure adrenaline-infused exhilaration. When I reached the bottom of the ravine, I carefully unhooked myself from the umbilical cord and stared up at the cascade. I turned around and gave a thumbs-up to Dave.

            He smiled and said, “You’re a natural.”

Happy Birthday Amelia!

~ “The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s apprecation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.”

~ “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tanacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”

~ “The most effecitve way to do it, is to do it.”

~ “Courage is the price that life exacts from granting peace.”

~ “Adventure is wothwile in itself.”

Travel Quotes

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” St. Augustine

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” Jack Kerouac 

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” Moorish Proverb

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” – Lin Yutang

“Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty-his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” – Aldous Huxley

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

″A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” – Moslih Eddin Saadi

“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.” – D. H. Lawrence

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” – Paul Theroux

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by.” – Robert Frost

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

“The journey not the arrival matters.” – T. S. Eliot

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” – Mark Twain

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

“Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe” – Anatole France

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca

“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

“Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.” – Freya Stark

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.” – Alan Keightley

“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“I love to travel, but hate to arrive.” – Albert Einstein

“When you are everywhere, you are nowhere / When you are somewhere, you are everywhere.” – Rumi

From the Movie Amelia

“When I was a little girl, for my 7th birthday, my father gave a globe
And I would spend hours just spinning it slowly, reading the names of all those strange far away places
Morocco, Spain, Ethiopia
Dreaming someday that I would go to those places
Like a wayfarer, a traveler, a vagabond
I want to be free
To be a vagabond of the air
I am on my shining adventure
Flying the world
No boarders
Just horizons
Only freedom
Everyone has oceans to fly as long as you have the heart to do it
It is reckless?
But what do dreams know of boundaries
I think of the hands I’ve held
The places I’ve seen
The vast plains whose dirt is caked on the bottom of my shoes
The world has changed me


The beauty engorges my heart filling it with light
My soul sings to the tops of the trees
The tears drip down my face
I am alive
I am at peace
The green breeze floats through the air
I float along
I am at home
I am everything around me
The dew on the leaves
The roots of the giants
The moss on the bark
My happiness overwhelms me
A wise man said “When you realize your destiny, the world conspires to make it so”
I am on the path of freedom
A path to let my soul sing
I am on a road to discover the very essence of my being
I am following my truth
What will I become?
Who will I be?
I will be courageous
I will be strong
I will follow my intuition
I will take chances
My spirit with soar into the clouds

Lake Wolfgang

Ah yes Another beautiful tranquil place I find myself 
I’m sitting beachside eating my baguette with the translucent green water lapping by
I feel as though I could stay here forever
The sun is warm and bright and feels perfect shining on my neck and back
The blue sails on the sailboat slowly drift by
I sit amongst the grass and trees
The trees that are becoming bare but still holding on to their beautiful array of yellows, oranges, reds, and still traces of green
It’s still not time for winter
The majestic hills surround and engulf me
The rippling tide sends me into a trance
I could fall asleep only to awake in heaven
For heaven is truly only found in this glorious earth
In places like this
Where you wish the day would never end 
But you dream of what glorious wonders the next day brings
And you wish your legs had the strength to pedal forever
To take you to faraway places that you once thought you could only fathom in your dreams 
Dreams are not only seen when your eyes are shut
On the contrary
It is only when your eyes are open that you can truly see the world

Words of Wisdom

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain
Would that life were like the shadow cast by a wall or a tree, but it is like the shadow of a bird in flight.” -~ Haggadah
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ~ Lao-Tzu
If you want to be happy, be.” ~ Leo Tolstoy
“We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important that the eye…The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.” ~ Jacob Bronowski
The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” ~ Paul Valery
Great belief, great doubt, great determination.” ~ Hakuin Zenji’s Three Essential Elements
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to be one’s own self..” ~ Montaigne
“If you are trying to aim for it, you are turning away from it.” ~ Zen Saying
“1. Out of clutter, find simplicity. 2. From discord, find harmony. 3. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~ Albert Einstein, Three Rules of Work
Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.” ~ Ludwig Borne
“To know that you know, and to know that you don’t know-that is real wisdom.” ~ Confucius
“Meditate on knowing and not knowing, on existing and not existing. Then leave both aside so that you may be.” ~ Shiva
“One who is content with what one has is always happy.” ~ Chinese Proverb
“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
“May all your heart and soul’s desires come true and may your inner child always be nurtured” ~ Melissa Myers
“One can travel all around the world and never find anyone more worthy of compassion than oneself.” ~Buddha 
“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” ~Mary Engelbreit
“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~Lao Tzu.
“Every day brings a choice: to practice stress or to practice peace.” ~Joan Borysenko

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