Access to the mountains, plains, rivers and caves entice adventurers into the elements to accomplish one goal — to live life fully.
Each outdoor activity comes with its share of rewards and risks. Some prefer taking trips with minimal danger. Others opt for activities with maximum risk, leading them to push the limits each time.
Hanns Mercer, Lorraine Lehman and Anthony and Jenny Aiello cover the spectrum of outdoor experiences. Mercer earns the title of riskiest of the four adventurers, with the Aiellos coming in at a normal-to-accelerated level of outdoorsy for the Sheridan area. Lehman fits in the middle as one who thinks about her “yes” to a risky descent on a caving trip when she is already an hour deep into a hole. All three levels have one thing in common before they go out — preparation.
Mercer started out as a downhill skier as a young child and progressed as an adult into paragliding, snow kiting, skijoring, caving and nailing carp with a bow and arrow while atop a jet ski. His main sport of paragliding requires hours of poring over variables affecting the glide before floating among the clouds.
Weather, functional equipment, changes in air pressure and wind patterns are all important variables Mercer must research, consider and plan for before choosing to jump off the ledge.
“We try to minimize our risk by using the safety approach,” Mercer said. “Every little variable you can get rid of to fly. If some of those don’t work out, you have to stand up and say, ‘No, I’m not going to take the risk today,’ and sometimes that’s not easy to do.”
Mercer started slow until he reached levels of high risk in paragliding.
“You start out with baby steps; nice, gentle flights off of a 50-foot hill,” Mercer said. “It seems like you can manage that risk really well and it’s a good reward. Then you grow and grow and grow and as your comfort zone comes into there, you exceed your comfort zone again.”
Lehman experienced a similar push to go beyond her comfort zone, but instead of in the sky, she chose to drop deep into the darkness.
Before fully descending into the caving world, Lehman — now an avid caver and leader of the Hole in the Wall Grotto based in Wyoming — chose to take wilderness first aid, complete National Cave Rescue Commission trainings, exercise to maintain endurance for caving trips and join a local grotto, or caving, group.
“It’s a lot more rewarding when your body’s prepared,” Lehman said.
By adequately preparing for caving, Lehman has wiggled her way out of some sticky situations.
“One thing caving teaches you is that your body can do amazing things,” Lehman said. “I’ve gotten myself out of stuff where I didn’t know if I could get out of there.”
Instituting the rule of three — three people per group and three light sources per person — helped Lehman remain calm and help herself and others through challenging cave experiences.
The Aiellos do not need much time before heading off on a backpacking adventure with their dogs, but thinking ahead and being prepared are the first two things they keep on their list each time they plan a trip.
“We know our limits,” Jenny Aiello said. “We’ll push them a little bit, but we’re not going to go and pretend we know how to…”
“We’re not going to get in over our head on purpose,” Anthony Aiello finished for his wife.
Assessing the skill level of each member of the group — pets included — helps keep everyone involved safe and cognizant if ever they need to turn around.
WHEN RISK PREVAILS
Mercer often toys with the level of risk he is willing to take, whether in a sport he has close to mastered or a new event like skijoring. Tour buses will pass by Sand Turn, where Mercer and his friends start their paragliding adventures, often calling them “crazy” and watching them jump off the cliff in awe.
Mercer’s high-performance wing prevented catastrophe during a close call in the sky, but his friend and fellow extreme sport athlete, Leon Schatz, came even closer to tragedy. A common goal for the duo is to chill the beer in their backpacks by skimming the base of the clouds. The danger of that is the potential of the wind sucking the pilot into the clouds. The risk becomes especially dangerous in a thunderstorm, which Schatz found himself nearing during a trip with Mercer. Fortunately, his experience paid off and he avoided a tumultuous trip through the barreling cumulonimbus clouds overhead.
Despite the close calls, Mercer continues to test the limits of his ability.
MOVING BEYOND THE NORM
One reason people head outdoors is to experience the “now” or buy into the idea that “you only live once.”
“You reach a point in your life when you do the same thing over and over. You make the same decisions, you order the same meal at the same restaurant every time…and I felt like I wasn’t living,” Mercer said. “That’s pushed me into doing something.”
Mercer quoted Neale Donald Walsch who said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Most adventurers have experienced life outside of their comfort zones. What pushed them beyond were the times where the reward during or after the experience outweighed the risk it took to get there.
For the Aiellos, the destination and getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city makes it worth the risks taken along the way.
“The destination is what makes it worth it,” Anthony Aiello said. “I did a day trip up to Fortress Lakes to catch golden trout — it was a 17-mile round trip day hike — and I went up there to fish for an hour…and it was totally worth it.”
For Lehman while caving, the beauty of the landscape hidden deep within tight crevasses and tiny holes makes it worth the risk.
“I’m constantly being amazed by the formations,” Lehman said. “Getting to them is sometimes a challenge, so it’s so rewarding to find that cave and see what’s inside of it.”
For Mercer, the chance to really feel alive keeps him pressing toward the next extreme sport.
“It almost becomes an addiction to live,” Mercer said. “The reward: It’s a fulfillment of life mixed with a cocktail of adrenaline.”