Picabo and Will after a dreamy Aspen flight.
The job was simple: Take Picabo Street, Olympic Gold Medallist, climbing, mountain boarding and paragliding in front of a slew of cameras. The results would be TV history. But complicating the scenario were Picabo's legs: One knee had blown up a year earlier, while the other femur had just had a seven-inch plate removed. Its strength was dubious, which had me worried. I could picture the headlines: "Picabo Street's 2002 Hopes Dashed by Will Gadd in Climbing/paragliding Accident."
For the first show, we had chosen to shoot climbing on the North Ridge of Montezuma's tower in the Garden of the Gods. Like many extreme athletes, Picabo is used to working with risk, but it's risk that she controls. For this show she was basically relying on other people's skills to keep her alive, a novel situation. I'd worried that she would be a prima donna pain in the ass to work with, but she totally focused and worked hard with me to learn how to tie in, belay and generally stay safe in the vertical world. No attitude, just straight focus and hard work for the TV cameras. I think it's often difficult to be as well-known as she is; everywhere we went people would ask for autographs, stop to talk or otherwise engage her. We shot the "how to" at the Colorado Springs Sport Climbing center, which is one of my favorite gyms. As we learned the basics, everyone stopped to chat her up, say hello or just watch as she climbed up the plastic dots. I could tell she was hesitant, but she got into it, with whoops at the top of each route.
"NO WAY. We're going to climb THAT?" Picabo's face was long as she looked up at the North Ridge of Montezuma's, but she soon got her game face on and started focusing; she obviously knew how to control her mind. In a few minutes her words were more upbeat, but her face had a look familiar to anyone who teaches novices how to climb.
Although Picabo struggled a bit mentally low on the climb, she pulled it together and did the climb with if not exactly perfect style then at least a big old smile. It was obvious that she was used to being coached; most people only respond to suggestions after several repetitions, but Picabo would seize them instantly. I'd always wondered how Olympic athletes would do with more fringe sports, Picabo on the summit of Montezuma's was the answer. It was definitely cool to watch her progress mentally, from barely being able to move to confidently seizing the "grips" and cranking up. We had Ric Geiman, from the Colorado Springs Sport Climbing Center, assisting, which was good as Jeff Silverman, our climbing cameraman, definitely needed backup. At least half the game in shooting shows like this is keeping everyone safe; Jeff had just finished shooting the US open on some nice green fairways, now here he was hanging 200 feet off the deck. He handled it really well, climbing with his camera and shooting down on Picabo while belayed by Ric. Picabo made the summit with a whoop, then rapped off with a few combat yells. Mission one complete!
The Mountain Boarding went well, I hooked the crew from Anderson productions up with the Mountain Board sports people and then basically stood back. For those not in the know, Mountain Boards are basically giant skate boards with big treaded wheels. I'd tried this sport a few years ago, the boards are definitely much more responsive now and even have brakes, which makes the whole experience a whole lot more pleasant for sure! Picabo was soon swooping and gliding, while the MTB crew cut big moves for the cameras. Mission two complete.
We shot the paragliding in Aspen, which is ideal for tandem flying. Thanks to Picabo's name, we were comped a super-plush condo at the Aspen Alps. I couldn't help but grin; when I lived in Aspen I was stuck into a hovel, now I was in a plush condo right beside the Gondola... If you ever want to stay some place totally dope then I think the Alps are the answer in Aspen for sure. Now if I can only come back in the winter...
The paragliding was intense. I fly a lot of tandem, but it's usually with either normal civilians or my girlfriend, Kim. I want to promote the sport of paragliding as a reasonably safe, fun sport; to even sprain Picabo's ankle would probably be national news, exactly the image I don't want for my sport... Plus I was flying in front of cameras, etc., on a schedule to get the show done. I don't launch a tandem unless I feel very, very good about doing so, but the pressure was definitely intense with Picabo. She hadn't even been able to run until a week earlier, her legs were that much in doubt. I resolved not to launch unless conditions would pass the "mother test," or were so good that I'd have felt OK launching my mother.
In the morning we stood on Walshes, but the winds aloft were blowing a hoolie, so it wasn't going to be good for long. Walshes is a morning site, which means it faces east. The thermals heat the east face and keep the west winds high enough that the rotor isn't a problem, but sooner or later the winds come down and chaos ensues. I walked Picabo through all the usual tandem commands, and it suddenly hit me that while her legs could be fragile, 70 percent on her was probably better than 100 percent on most people. She charged off launch like she was coming out of a starting gate--yeah baby! I actually had to slow down to keep the glider over us, a nice change from the sudden stop many people execute as they hit the edge of the hill...
We had a good flight from Walshes, with an Aspen Paragliding pilot named Minut and Tim, some sort of cousin, shooting across at us from another tandem for perfect air to air shots. Minut was good enough to keep almost on us as we did wingovers, a spiral and finally landed. Picabo tripped on a tuft of grass and fell over, but not hard. She was beyond psyched with the flight, all grins and smiles, laughing and re-living the flight for the next couple of hours. One of the reasons I like doing tandems is seeing the energy people get from the experience, it's like learning to fly all over again, and Picabo was pumped. The Walshes LZ is in a nature preserve, which means landing there is strictly regulated; some might call it ridiculously so, but we respected their desire for minimal impact and didn't even have the camera crew on the grass to film the landing, hardly ideal from a TV perspective, but I wasn't going to be the one to screw up access for pilots. However, that did mean we had to land in the Marolt LZ on the other side of the mountain for the show to be complete.
The winds were too high to fly in the afternoon, although I did get an afternoon session of gale-hanging in off of Ruthies. The super-clinic was going on at the same time, so there were hordes of pilots on Walshes. Dave Bridges asked over the radio how the air was, and I was digging for my radio when I took a large asym, a good enough answer to his question. The Ruthies LZ sucked, all sideways and swirling nasties, I was quite happy to have made the decision not to fly Picabo as I had a hard landing. The afternoon continued blown out, although Picabo's assistant, Jessica, managed to get us comped into the Aspen Club, which is probably the plushest gym I've ever worked out in. I can see the advantage of being famous for sure. Picabo was just starting to train again after almost a year off due to her injuries, but she got psyched and tossed the disks with me for a couple of hours. She is indeed strong despite being out of shape, and brought a lot of good energy to the session. One little girl kept eyeing us while holding a pad of paper, but never worked up the nerve to ask for Picabo's autograph despite Picabo smiling at her...
The next morning we didn't launch off of Walshes, I didn't like the conditions. Although I had confidence in Picabo's run, I didn't like the way the air was feeling and also had a bad vibe in general. I've learned over the years to respect that vibe, and did despite some pressure to shoot more. It can be hard to explain to a film crew why you're not launching when other people are, but I've learned not to push it when I feel bad. Because we desperately needed a landing shot on Beta, Picabo and I had tried to scooter tow the night before, and had a rougher landing than I would have liked. I wasn't going to push it again for the TV show even a little bit. I wanted nice strong, clean cycles up launch, but instead they were very mixed, and dust devils started ripping through. This is not a good sign at 10,000 feet in a pine forest. Eventually a glider did a nice couple of negatives before sorting it out right in front of us, and suddenly there wasn't any more pressure to launch. We moved to Ruthies and had a dreamy 30 minute flight, one of the nicest I've had in years. Picabo did paragliding proud with her commentary and general psyche in flight, plus booming enthusiasm after our stand-up landing.
In the last few days I've answered the question, "So what's she really like?" repeatedly. My answer is that Picabo is living in a world totally different than any of ours; people react to her as "famous," someone who can bestow the Midas touch in some way. I don't think anyone could have that experience without it changing him or her--imagine if almost everyone you talked to knew a few facts about you and was going to remember the meeting for better or worse. How would you react? The expected responses almost condition the reaction. Everyone wants a piece of Picabo to some extent, and she's used to dealing with that. Her life is a series of public appearances, perhaps not to the same extent as Michael Jordan, but far more than any climber or extreme sports athlete in the world. When all the people were out of the way, Picabo would relax and act pretty much like anyone--TV on, feet up, face relaxed. But when anyone else was around she had to be "on;" people weren't just meeting another person, they were meeting Picabo. I generally really admire the way she deals with all of it; she did these shows and promoted the sports I dig instead of playing another celebrity golf tournament (which she also does), and she really loved all the sports we did. I think that being a star is going to strain anyone pretty hard, but I think Picabo has done a good job of staying in touch with herself and reality better than most people would. She works hard to be aware of what's happening around her, and she's enjoyable to be around. She worked hard, didn't whine, had fun and was a joy to fly and climb with. My only complaint was her over-riding fondness for sushi, but sake bombers can cure anything..
The Danger Zone shows will air sometime this fall on the Outdoor Life Network, check their website for more info. I think the series will be good; Picabo is the continual host, and she genuinely cares about doing a good job for the sports. She's also not just commentating on them, but getting down and dirty which I think will make for less of the, "Here's a bunch of idiots doing crazy stuff," and more, "Damn, this sport is COOL!" Check it out.
BIG thanks to:
The Colorado Springs Sport Climbing Center
The Aspen Alps Condos
The Aspen Club
Superfly, for the Monster Tandem and positive energy.