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Sky-high in Scottsdale

Arizona adventure goes to new heights

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- I've never had a secret wish to join the Cirque du Soleil. Heights, not to mention clowns, scare me.

But this visit to Scottsdale came with heights, big and small -- from an aerial hammock, a hot-air balloon and atop Camelback Mountain. It was a different view of a place known for flatland fun such as golf, great restaurants, shopping and near-perfect weather.

Here are some exhilarating ways to see another side of Scottsdale -- upside down and from the sky.

Downward-facing vampire?

I've never been one to turn down a chance to do yoga, even if it does have the word "aerial" in front of it. I wondered how high off the ground it would it be. Not very, but that didn't make it any less tricky.

Aerial yoga, also known as suspension or anti-gravity yoga, "is a way of deepening whatever practice you already do," says Sierra Ramm, yoga and movement supervisor at the Fairmont Scottsdale's Well & Being Spa.

It has its roots in the acrobatic derring-do of the Cirque du Soleil.

"It tests you and can make you feel uncomfortable," says Ramm. You'll also keep saying, "I'm going to fall," but chances are you won't.

Suspended in a large, hammock-like piece of stretch-nylon fabric latched onto the ceiling with carabiners and rigging -- just like the gear used in mountain climbing -- we're suspended a couple of feet from the floor, swinging gently.

Ramm guides us through the hour-long practice, starting us off slowly, getting us accustomed to being off the ground and trusting the fabric as a support.

Suddenly, I'm face down, hands behind my back with the fabric wrapped around my ankles. The head rush is instant.

The trickiest pose of the day has to be the Vampire Pose -- something you don't appreciate until you see a picture of it. It takes faith in yourself and is impossible to explain in words. All you need to know is you're flat-out, face-down with your arms out behind you, wing-like. Oddly enough, it feels exhilarating.

The rush of blood to the head is similar to a couple of tequila shots in the hot Scottsdale sun.

For me, shavasana (corpse pose) in the cocoon-like swaddling is the best part of the hour, that and savouring the au naturel light-headedness of our 60 minutes of suspension.

At 6 a.m. in the Sonoran Desert, it's chilly and we're wrapped up in a couple of layers as the sun, just below the horizon, teases us with what will surely be a hot day. For now, we're shivering and waiting for the massive silk fabric in brilliant shades of orange and yellow to unfurl. It'll be our transportation over the Sonoran Desert for the next couple of hours.

Once we're up, up and away, it's not long before the chill is gone. A whoosh of hot air envelops us from the flame that propels what is the oldest human airborne transport.

Our captain -- this is an aircraft, after all -- regales us with stories of ballooning the rich and famous, such as Mick Jagger's family over the French countryside.

But we ordinary scenery-chasers are having just as much fun. The beauty of the desert is its predictable sameness.

As one National Geographic scribe writes, "The Sonoran Desert is an ecosystem in need of a public-relations makeover."

Well, that's a bit harsh, but so is this arid landscape. We're trying to spot wildlife -- a vulture, a coyote, something. But kilometre after high kilometre, all we see are the multi-armed saguaro cacti and unruly-looking creosote bushes. The only civilized landmarks are far in the distance -- downtown Phoenix and Camelback Mountain. The sun is now high and so are we, floating up to 1,000 metres above the ground.

Just as we're being lulled into the landscape, we're ready for our landing. Holding tight and bracing against the basket, we skid ever so lightly across the desert to our destination. It's only 8 a.m., but we're ready for mimosas, croissants and fresh fruit, a fitting way to end the journey.

A tanned woman who has to be at least 70 passes me, huffing and puffing. She's not stopping for any red lights. This is her personal natural Stairmaster, as it is for dozens of others ascending the path up Camelback Mountain on the Cholla Trail. (The Echo Trail is set to reopen Nov. 30 after major renovations.)

It's the craggy red-rock landmark, seen for kilometres, in this otherwise flat desert landscape. It gets its name from the fact it looks like a kneeling camel.

Just because this is considered an "urban hike," it is not a walk in the park.

Nor is it an activity to be done midday -- even in April. We started our ascent at 5:45 a.m. with good reason. By 7 a.m., it's close to 25 C and the mercury is still climbing. But so are we, in pursuit of the pinnacle, which seems daunting at 875 metres. That's because once you reach the halfway point, you need good knees and an affinity for the thrill of heights. Plus the boulders are the size of small Volkswagen Beetles and must be scaled to reach the top.

But even before that happens, the vistas from here are awesome, framed by cliff-hugging cacti and other desert-loving flora.

Even at this mark, these folks who must make a hobby of climbing this gargantuan hump are passing us, literally running with water bottles in hand.

If you make a race of it, you could be up and down in an hour. For those of us who like to go at a more leisurely pace, two hours is the norm.

Either way, by the time you're back on flat ground by 8 a.m., you've accomplished your 10,000 steps per day several times over before many people have had their morning coffee.

http://phoenix.gov/parks/trails/locations/camelback/

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A1

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