10 serious adventures anyone can undertake
Climb the Grand Teton
Prep Time: Two months
Time Off Work: Three days
When to Go: July-August
A singular sawtooth of golden granite and black ice couloirs, the Grand Teton is where generations of America's top alpine climbers have honed their skills. It's a climber's mountain: shapely, jagged, and requiring just enough technical skill to be challenging. In 1931, Glenn Exum pioneered the best route up the 13,770-foot Wyoming peak, and the climbing school he founded has employed elite mountaineers from Willie Unsoeld to Rolando Garibotti. With so much experience at your disposal, climbing the Exum Ridge with an Exum guide is like learning to drive from Mario Andretti. But don't expect them to drag you up the Grand. "It's a huge part of Exum's heritage that clients are not just short-roped up like they are in Europe," says Jack Tackle, an Exum guide since 1982. Exum requires every new client to spend two days learning the ropes with its guides before the climb, which means that almost any fit hiker is a candidate for this trip. The ascent begins at 6,700 feet with an all-day hike to Exum's 16-person hut at the Lower Saddle, an 11,600-foot pass below the peak. Summit day starts before dawn, ascending steep talus by headlamp to reach a sloping catwalk called Wall Street. Above this scary step lie a dozen or so pitches of beautiful rock climbing, never harder than ego-friendly 5.5. Soon the rising sun warms your hands and the Upper Exum Ridge's pleasures are revealed in hallowed pitches such as the Golden Staircase and the Friction Pitch. At the top, your view spans three states and, on cold, clear mornings, you can spot Old Faithful's steam 50 miles to the north.
Start Today: Do all cardio, all the time. "People should realize this is an aerobic event much more than it is a technical one," Tackle says. Hike uphill for an hour, at least twice a week for two months. Flatlanders can substitute stair climbing or running several days a week. Visit the climbing gym. Exum will teach complete newbies all the knots and skills they need to climb the Grand, but a few sessions on a climbing wall will make you more comfortable with donning a harness, tying a figure-eight, and moving in the vertical world.
Don't Leave Home Without: Technical approach shoes. For typical summer conditions, heavy mountaineering boots are overkill, and specialized climbing shoes aren't necessary for the Exum Ridge's moderate moves. The perfect compromise is a comfortable hiking support with sticky rubber for rock climbing.
More Info: Exum Mountain Guides charges from $600 for the Classic Grand Teton Climb, plus $175 per day for mandatory pre-climb instruction (exumguides.com). Jackson Hole Airport lies within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park, which is a 15-minute drive from the trailhead.
MJ Insider: Before your date with Exum, acclimate to Jackson Hole's 6,500-foot elevation with several day hikes in Grand Teton National Park, such as the 4.8-mile trek to Amphitheater Lake, at 9,700 feet. Although the Exum hut is more comfortable than a flapping tent, it's still a flatulence-filled tube in which the alarm goes off at 3:00 a.m. Recover from your climb at the Alpine House, a Jackson B&B run by Exum guide Hans Johnstone and his wife Nancy, both former Olympic skiers.
Surf the Maldives
Prep Time: Six months
Time Off Work: Two weeks
When to Go: May–October
While Indonesia may still draw the masses, surfers in the know are flocking to a 500-mile-long string of minuscule islands adrift in the Indian Ocean called the Maldives, where waves boast comparable reef-break perfection, but with a far more user-friendly shape. We probably wouldn't be singing the Maldives' praises if it weren't for the dumb-luck discovery of a shipwrecked Aussie surfer back in the '70s. More than 30 years ago Tony Hinde, who later opened Tari Village surf resort, was sailing with friends from Sri Lanka to South Africa when they ran aground on a reef in the Maldives' North Male Atolls. Hinde quickly got a taste of the region's flawless surf and soon made the Maldives his home. "I found islands with friendly people and perfect waves, surfable at all tides, with offshore winds that blew all day long," Hinde says. "I'm a surfer, how could I leave?" The best way to sample the aquarium-clear swell is aboard a chartered boat, and the very best vessel on offer is the Ocean Dancer, a 115-foot luxury yacht with private staterooms, an onboard masseuse, a personal chef, and surf guides. By night the boat plies the North Male Atolls in search of surf so that in the morning you're perfectly positioned to make surgical strikes on world-class breaks like Sultans, Jailbreaks, or Ninjas, which average three to eight feet high. When you're ready for a rest, summon the 40-hp dinghy to chauffeur you back to the yacht for lunch on the sundeck. You won't touch dry land for seven days — unless you want to.
Start Today: Swim. Paddling out in rough surf can be so tiring it'll leave you without enough juice to actually catch a wave. Four months prior to your trip, prepare for marathon surf sessions with three pool workouts per week, if you can't actually get to the ocean. Try to build up to 60-minute swims, incorporating a few 25-yard sprints into slow and steady lap workouts. Take a lesson. This is not a trip for first-time surfers. Before you attempt a reef, get comfortable with a beach break somewhere like Costa Rica or Baja, Mexico, where waves are often less steep, thus giving you more time to paddle in, and far more margin for error.
Don't Leave Home Without: A rash guard. Sun in the Maldives is brutal, but the waves are so good you won't want to quit. The O'Neill Skins Crew long-sleeved rash guard is lightweight and UV-protective, and has a loop at the hemline to prevent ride-up ($42, rei.com).
More Info: Ocean Dancer's packages include meals and a shared or single cabin. Check out wavehunters.com for detailed information on Maldives surfing. From the East Coast try American or Emirates, which fly to Male in the Maldives via Dubai or London (emirates.com); from the West Coast, fly Singapore Air from Los Angeles, connecting through Singapore (singaporeair.com).
MJ Insider: At times there will be other surf charter boats prowling the same spots; to avoid crowds, surf during lunchtime. From about 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. you'll have the waves to yourself. If you can bring only one board to the Maldives, the seven-foot Channel Islands M13 should be your stick. It paddles like a longboard, surfs like a shortboard, and can handle everything from knee-high slop to double overhead waves (cisurfboards.com).
Adventure race New Zealand
Prep Time: One year
Time Off Work: One week
When to Go: February
"The Coast to Coast is like the Super Bowl for New Zealand," says Travis Macy, a Colorado-based adventure racer. "The energy surrounding it is unlike anything I've seen with any other race. There are spectators along the entire course, and probably several thousand at the finish line." This four-leg, 151-mile traverse of New Zealand's South Island — involving running, biking, and paddling — happens every February and is a wild test of endurance. It all kicks off at the Tasman Sea on the west coast and, by way of trails, rivers, and roads, and rugged Kiwi fashion, makes its way across the country. The first taste of suffering comes on a 20.5-mile mountain run up and over Goat Pass, complete with river crossings, boulder-hopping, and off-trail maneuvering. The biggest challenge of the day is a 42-mile, grade 2 wildwater paddle down the Waimakariri River, before the finish at the coastal town of Sumner on the Pacific. While it may sound like the exclusive domain of the ultrafit, the Coast to Coast is considered a perfect challenge for those new to the sport: brutal, but supremely satisfying.
Start Today: Vary your training. Develop a solid base of running and road biking. Get your required grade 2 certification through an American Canoe Association — certified program. Do a test run. Sign up for a 12-hour domestic race such as an Adventure Xstream event in Colorado or the Tahoe Big Blue Adventure Race in California. If you can finish a 12-hour race here, completing the two-day race down there is very doable. Find partners. A compatible teammate and savvy support person are key for the team event. If you can't convince a friend, find both through the race's website.
Don't Leave Home Without: Trail-running shoes that are light and agile. They should drain and dry quickly and offer traction on slippery surfaces.
More Info: Fly to Auckland and connect to Christchurch, near the finish line.
MJ Insider: Arrange boat and bike rental in Christchurch well before your trip to avoid lugging your own vehicles overseas. Get there at least a week early to scout the course, especially the paddling sections.
Hike the Continental Divide
Prep Time: Two months
Time Off Work: One week
When to Go: June–September
Established in 1978 and rivaling the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, the Continental Divide Trail winds 3,100 miles through the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. And because a third of the route is unfinished (even more of it is unmapped), the high-altitude CDT sees only a fraction of the foot traffic. The La Garita Wilderness area in southwest Colorado is the route's best stretch of pristine backcountry terrain, and a five-day, 27-mile traverse offers all the challenge and solitude you could ask for. "The whole Colorado section of the CDT is beautiful, with ridgetop walking, endless views, and good trails," says "Flyin'" Brian Robinson, the first person to through-hike the Appalachian and Pacific Crest and Continental Divide in a single year. "But La Garita earns top billing as one of the wildest, emptiest sections of all." From the Eddiesville trailhead you'll pass through alpine meadows, enormous basins, and old-growth stands. The relatively tame mileage leaves ample time for acclimating — you'll be above 12,000 feet for most of the route – and a stunning two-mile detour to the bald summit of 14,014-foot San Luis Peak. If you feel ambitious, double back the way you came; otherwise, set up for the two-car shuttle.
Start Today: Run trails. It'll get you into the right kind of shape and let you break in the Montrail Vitesse lightweight trail sneaks you'll be wearing instead of those burly boots that just slow you down. We recommend you put some weight on your back during workouts. Study the maps. The La Garita section of the CDT is well-marked, but before you go, it's worth studying the National Geographic/Trails Illustrated and USGS maps.
Don't Leave Home Without: Trekking poles. The Leki Ultralite Carbon Ergometrics (leki.com) will spare your knees thousands of pounds of pressure over the long haul and double as tent poles in a jam. "I didn't know how much they helped till I forgot them," says CDT guidebook author Tom Jones.
More Info: Pick up Jones's "Colorado's Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide." For maps try the National Geographic/Trails Illustrated La Garita Wilderness, #139, and USGS quadrangles for San Luis Peak, Baldy Cinco, Slumgullion Pass, and Halfmoon Pass. For information, visit cdtrail.org.
MJ Insider: Backpacking's golden rule still stands: Light is right. Your pack – minus food and water – should weigh no more than 15 pounds in mild months. Bring only the clothes you're wearing, a light Gore-Tex shell, and a midweight jacket for cold nights.
Prep Time: Three months
Time Off Work: Two weeks
When to Go: May, October, November
When a government makes policy based on gross national happiness, you know it has its priorities straight. "I remember stopping at the top of a high mountain pass to talk to two schoolgirls," says Bhutan cycling vet Peter Rudy. "It was late in the day, and I said, 'Aren't you going to be late for school?' And they said, 'What's late?'" KE Adventure is one of only a few companies allowed to operate inside a country sandwiched between India and China, where individual tourism has always been highly restricted. KE's Thunder Dragon cycling trip is a 12-day, 528-mile, west-to-east traverse of the vast rural landscape, dotted with monasteries and ancient fortresses, over no fewer than 10 alpine passes for 50,856 feet of total climbing. The trip's longest descent, off the 12,468-foot summit of Thumsing La, is 53 miles long. On this downhill and for days after, you'll bask in the giddy satisfaction of rising GPH: gross personal happiness.
Start Today: Three by three. Three months before you go, do three one-to-two-hour rides per week. One of them should push your threshold, and increase in length every week until it reaches four hours. And no pumping iron; instead hit the cardio machines for some long, slow distance workouts to build endurance.
Don't Leave Home Without: Great cycling shorts. Dial in your "contact points" — seat, shorts, gloves, and grips — for long days in the saddle. And for that one all-important contact point, pick up Castelli's Free Bibknicker.
More Info: For the KE trip, you'll fly to and from Delhi on your own dime and then take a connecting flight to Paro, where the cycling begins.
MJ Insider: You'll need to bring your own steed for this trip, but leave the road bike at home. Third World asphalt, with crumbling shoulders and wheel-bending potholes, is the norm. A hardtail mountain bike with slick tires is the ticket. Kona's Dew FS (konaworld.com) is a durable, comfortable fleet option.
Dive the Galapagos
Prep Time: Up to one year
Time Off Work: Eight days
When to Go: June–November
The waters surrounding Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the remote northern tip of the Galápagos chain, are as alive as the land they surround. "You've got whale sharks, schools of hammerheads, mantas, and booby birds swimming by you 60 feet underwater," says Wayne Hasson, president of the charter dive fleet Aggressor. "Currents are strong [up to three knots], but you don't have to be Superman to dive here," adds photographer Jonathan Bird, a six-time Darwin/Wolf vet. "You're on rock, not reef, so you roll out of the Zodiac, haul ass to the bottom, and hold on." Still, this is no place for beginners; many outfitters require clients to have several dives under their weight belts to qualify for bottom time.
Start Today: Log as many dives in pushy current as you can. If you've dived in other unruly waters — such as off California or the Atlantic seaboard — you've got a good idea of what to expect. Get on the wait list. Register your interest with an outfitter immediately for a high-season trip, your only real chance of swimming with a whale shark. The Ecuadoran government now limits dive permits, and trips sell out well in advance. But wait-list slots open up frequently.
Don't Leave Home Without: Two wetsuits. Screw the "pack light" ethos and bring a 5mm or 7mm for the south and another 3mm for the north. You'll also want a thick hood, and Kevlar gloves for holding on to barnacled rocks.
More Info: Plan to spend about $4,500 for a week, including dives, live-aboard lodging, meals, and local booze. You can't book flights to the Galápagos on your own; have your dive charter book them for you, from Guayaquil or Quito.
MJ Insider: Fly in a day early. "Airlines always lose luggage," Bird says. "Give it a day to catch up." Pack plenty of warm technical clothing for nighttime air temps in the 60s.
Raft the Zambezi
Prep time: One month
Time off work: One week
When to go: October–December
It's one thing to witness the power of Africa's mile-wide Victoria Falls, created by the Zambezi River as it flows between Zambia and Zimbabwe; it's something altogether life-changing to hike to the base of the falls, hop in a rubber raft, and give yourself over to the river's fury. As the whitewater careens through the Batoka Gorge's narrow basalt walls, the Zambezi serves up 23 world-class rapids, all of which rival those found in the Grand Canyon. You'll encounter 20-foot drops, 12-foot waves, and swimming pool-size whirlpools. And that's just day one of your five-day, 75-mile journey from Vic Falls to the Matetsi River mouth. Back in 1981, when U.S. river runner/explorer Richard Bangs led the historic first descent, rafting the Zambezi was considered a death-defying proposition. These days local outfitters guide thousands of whitewater amateurs down its Class IV–V rapids each year. "You put in at one of the seven natural wonders of the world and get to experience the culture of a village that's more than 500 years old. It's some of the most spectacular big-water river running on the planet," says Scott Lindgren, expedition kayaker and adventure filmmaker. "As far as getting the complete river experience, it doesn't get any better." The gorge is so steep and deep that you won't run into the usual suspects seen on a safari, but there is a chance you will spot vervet monkeys, baboons, black eagles, giant kingfishers, the rare hippo — and crocodiles. Don't let the rafting outfitters tell you otherwise; there are indeed crocs patrolling the Zambezi. We've seen them, and the farther down the gorge you go, the bigger they get. Odds of being attacked are really low, but consider it extra motivation to stay inside the raft.
Start today: See a travel medicine doctor. Make an appointment four to six weeks prior to your trip so you have time for vaccinations, including those for typhoid and hepatitis A and B, and to pick up malaria pills. Check cdc.gov for the latest recommendations. Start swimming. Even though it's not absolutely necessary, as you'll be wearing a life jacket the entire time, it's a good idea to be a relatively strong swimmer. Do several light swimming workouts before you go.
Don't Leave Home Without: A pair of river sandals. But avoid those with Velcro fasteners, which won't stay on your feet in turbulent whitewater. Instead, get a pair with buckles, like the Teva Universal Buckle (teva.com).
MJ Insider: The reason the misleadingly named "low water" season (October to December) is the best time to go, is because the rapids are more fun, thanks to steeper drops, snakier runs, and safer conditions.The most dangerous creature in Africa isn't the lion or crocodile; it's the malaria-carrying mosquito. Obviously, malaria pills are key, but also bring strong DEET-based repellent and a lightweight silk or cotton Permethrin-treated sleep sack.
Ski Mount Shasta
Prep Time: Two weeks
Time Off Work: Three days
When to Go: March–June
New age spiritualists have gathered in the shadows of Mount Shasta's 14,162-foot peak since the Harmonic Convergence of '87, but the crystal-toting masses ain't got nothing on the legions of ski mountaineers who covet the lower 48's most authentic-yet-accessible big-mountain experience. Summiting and schussing Shasta on your own demands evolved skiing and mountaineering skills; barring that, hire the capable folks at Shasta Mountain Guides, a group of local climbers and skiers who've been carving into Shasta's snowpack for nearly 30 years. They will also guide you away from crowds and into the locals' favorite run, Hot Tune, a 7,000-foot route that traces a sun-softened throat of forgiving corn snow between the Hotlum and Wintun Glaciers. "On Hot Tune, you can ski from within 20 yards of the summit," says Rich Meyer, who's spent the past decade leading clients to the summit. "And the snow is probably the best on the mountain." For most, it's a weekend affair, with a predawn summit push after a day of uphill skiing. Less ambitious ski mountaineers might want to hike the popular Avalanche Gulch route to Lake Helen, at about 10,000 feet, then take the skins off your skis for a rolling 3,500-foot descent over glacial moraines. It's about a four-hour round-trip on what Meyer describes as "a sweet cruising run that's not too sketchy for intermediates and not too tame for experts."
Start Today: Learn crampon and ice ax technique. Those with more time could add a skills course on Shasta to begin their trip. Work your legs. Add low-weight, high-rep squats and lunges to your workout. The 7,000-foot descent of Hot Tune will turn even the strongest quads to jelly. For climbing fitness, set the stairclimber to fast-pace, small-step mode.
Don't Leave Home Without: Advil. "People think altitude won't be a problem in the lower 48," says Meyer. "But most of my clients deal with some acute mountain sickness. Advil will help with the headaches."
More Info: Shasta Mountain Guides' offers single and multi-day ski and snowboard ascents, as well as backcountry skiing (shastaguides.com).
MJ Insider: Frozen morning snow can thwart traditional climbing skins. Use ski crampons, which provide ice-busting traction and keep your skis on your feet instead of your back. Tune your skis. That means sharp edges, fresh wax, and a careful inspection of all binding parts for cracked plastic and loose screws. This isn't like at your favorite resort where you can duck inside for a hot whiskey while the ski tech sorts you out.
Paddle British Columbia
Prep Time: Three months
Time Off Work: Two weeks
When to Go: July–August
The lush, nine-mile-long thumb of Vancouver Island known as Brooks Peninsula is so remote, the last ice age never quite found it. This temperate rain forest is part of the 3 percent of Canada that never ended up under ice 10,000 years ago, and it's like a lost world in which moss slowly devours fallen totem poles, eagles fly overhead with salmon locked in their talons, and sea otters hammer open shellfish on their bellies. "It's the West Coast at its most wild," says Brent Blackmun, area supervisor with BC Parks. For a seriously up-close and exhilarating taste, slide into the cockpit of an expedition kayak for nine days, and 60 miles of coastline, exploring the wilds of B.C.'s Checleset Bay. Expect several days of committed paddling and a couple of exposed ocean crossings; you'll camp on small islands along the way and make frequent surf landings. Your reward: Attenborough-worthy wildlife gazing, empty beaches, and one of the most vivid night skies you've ever seen.
Start Today: Build core strength. Add activities like swimming and yoga to your routine. Kayak touring is less cardio-intensive than other activities, but endurance and power are key as you'll be traveling between five and 11 nautical miles each day. Brush up on your paddling. A second-nature understanding of the basics, particularly bracing, which you'll need for balance in rough seas, and assisted- and self-rescues, are absolutely necessary. So is the ability to land your kayak on a beach with breakers behind you. Pick up these skills on a weekend kayaking course.
Don't Leave Home Without: A great pair of binoculars. Bushnell's waterproof H2O 7x50 scopes are O-ring-sealed and nitrogen-purged to completely lock out moisture (bushnell.com).
More Info: Seasoned paddlers can plan their own trips into the Checleset, but services are sparse and logistics are daunting. Most U.S. airlines serve Vancouver Airport. From there book a flight on Pacific Coastal Airlines (pacificcoastal.com) to Campbell River, then hire a cab for the 90-minute ride to Gold River.