Matt Niswonger

Readers’ (and Editors’) Memorable Adventures Made Better by Beer

After sea kayaking on Tomales Bay, a cold beer goes right to the sole. Photo Ralf Weber

The link between sports and beer is well established. But in the adventure sports community, we’re not talking about sitting on one’s kiester, sipping over-priced beer from a plastic cup while watching overpaid professionals have all the fun.

For the most part, our beers are earned. For us, beer is the reward at the end of a long backcountry journey, a relaxing capper at the end of a high-intensity effort, the liquid gold at the end of a sweat fest. Not only does it help replace lost calories and soothe from the bloodstream out, it provides a prism of perspective to share and relive our adventures with friends.

ASJ invited readers to send in their favorite outdoor epics that culminated with a tall cold one or two. And since it was our idea, ASJ staff and contributors chipped in as well. A couple stories deviated from the beer as reward theme, but then adventure is nothing if not unpredictable.

Flip-Flop Pop Top

As a pilot for a German airline, my favorite city to fly into is San Francisco. After we arrive, we have a 48-hour layover before departing. I often use this free day to visit the coast, go skiing in Tahoe, or paddling on the bay. Last spring I took one of my copilots up to Tomales Bay and we rented sea kayaks from Blue Waters Kayaking. After a day of wind and salt water, practicing rolls near the beach, paddling up to Hog Island and back, we were dreaming about the bottles of Gordon Biersch Pilsner back in the parking lot. I had to snap a photo of my buddy opening a beer with the sandals he bought the day before at the Sports Basement. They had a bottle opener in the sole. Very California, very convenient. Just watch where you step first.

—Ralf Weber, Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Germany

Truth in Advertising?

High altitude in the Andes is both dry and can be quite warm during the day. I have seen even lizards sunning themselves at 5,000 meters. Sometimes finding water can be a problem too. Feeling sorry for one particular lizard, I sprinkled some of the beer I was imbibing after coming off the mountain (7,000 meters) on the tundra next to the little guy. He proceeded to lap it up voraciously with his tongue. It was, I thought, the living embodiment a good Bud ad.

—John Thee, Camarillo, CA and La Paz, Bolivia

Spontaneous Gal Power

Some of the best ideas hatch around 11 o’clock on a hot summer’s night. Cynthia and I were sitting outside Marco’s Cafe in Coloma (on the South Fork American), where we worked as raft guides, when I suddenly had the impulse to kayak Burnt Ranch Gorge on the Trinity River way up north. Exactly 8.5 hours later we laid down with our sleeping bags in the dirt at put-in, until the day got too hot. Then, we had one of the most memorable kayaking days of our lives. No boys. No directions. And no doubt. Cynthia’s blond hair and buxom physique stopped a local driving a pickup truck dead in his tracks. He ended up running our shuttle and just happened to have a sixer of icy cold bevs with him, and well, it seemed like Beer Thirty to us.

—Wendy Lautner, Truckee

Days of Peak Bagging

When I was a young fellow living in Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra in the 1970s, I used to love to bag peaks every weekend with my Springer Spaniel, Inyo. I just couldn’t get enough of it! I worked all week long for the Forest Service building trails in the wilderness and would climb a different peak on Saturday and Sunday. My favorite thing to do was to hit it early in the morning, climb a peak, enjoy the heck out of it and return home by 2 pm to watch Days of Our Lives with a cold Bud in my hand.

—David McNeill, Bishop

Huts, Brats and Bier

Can you say spoiled rotten? Well, that is how I felt each afternoon rolling into the hut on the 8-day long Alps Haute Route ski tour. Sure I had worked hard for my “turns” and my treat at the end but there is nothing like getting warm and cozy in a hut, ordering up a hot meal and accompanying it with cold refreshing beer. Feels a bit decadent. The “highlight beer” was at the end of the trip when I finally got my favorite meal of bratwurst and sauerkraut. Beer never tasted so divine. When it comes to integrating adventure and beer, the Euros do it right.

—Anna Siebelink, San Francisco

Post-Ride Reward on Hold

The plan was to ease into Moab’s bounty of biking. On our first day, we would ride a bit, soak in the hot tub, and end up at the local microbrewery. Little did we plan on darkness and over-enthusiasm separating our group, stranding two of us on the cold mesa. The beer would wait 24 hours, after a poacher-turned-deputy led us on an all-night search for two cold bikers huddled atop a mesa with parched lips, listening for cougars, rationing one Powerbar. After their rescue, worry and marital strife quickly shifted to thoughts of ice cream, pizza, and beer.

—David Lo

Tuolumne Trials

The Tuolumne is a great summer kayaking run because the river runs all summer with dam releases. But, oh my, it does get hot in them thar hills! We typically run it two days in a row, all 18 miles, which makes for long days. Just setting shuttle can be a bear. One particular weekend a couple years ago it was 105 degrees at the put in. At least! By the time we got down to the reservoir it seemed even hotter. The light breeze blowing up river would dry out your eyeballs as if we were paddling into an oven. The last mile of flat water on Lake Don Pedro was a sufferfest and dreams of cold beer danced in our heads. Stiff, hot, and exhausted … Nothing could have been better than cold pale ale!

—Adam Webb, Santa Cruz

Anchors Away

Although I’m not big on carrying 12-ounce anchors along on adventures, there was one trip last summer that I cherished every sip of the couple brews I packed. After a joyous afternoon of swimming, rappelling, and cliff jumping high above Yosemite Valley, the sweet taste of a PBR was absolutely exquisite as we contemplated our last two double-rope length raps to the valley floor. The view from the barstool might have had something to do with it though. We had a very sexy “Sentinel” sitting on the adjacent stool and her wide cracks were winking at us.

—Seth Lightcap, Truckee

Flippin’ Focused

Dressed for submersion in dry tops and stuffed into playboats, my kayaking buddy Ed and I floated a flat but swift section of the Truckee River. It was a high runoff year, but the day was hot and the kayak gear a bit stifling during the long flat sections.

With still miles to go before takeout, we passed a crowd of bathing-suit clad sunbathers on the far bank, eliciting a few shouts. Waving back, one of the guys – must have been a mind reader – motioned me a can of beer from the cooler in the river!

Although I was already a good ways downstream, he launched it. His toss came up a bit short and I flipped over reaching back to catch the incoming silver missile. Upside down, I tracked the can bouncing along the bottom in the current, tantalizingly close but still out of reach, straining as far as I could without popping my skirt.

I must have held my breath for a Phelpsian 20-plus seconds (and I mean in the pool not behind a bong!) before the object of my ridiculous desire bounced into my grasp and I stuffed it into the front of my PFD. On the verge of hypoxia, I grabbed my paddle and rolled up. As I did, I held the can up like an Olympic medal. From the riverbank came the loudest cheer I’ve ever received for any kayaking maneuver I’ve ever performed, or am likely to perform.

Not only was it one of the highlights of my boating career, but the prize (whatever it was, Miller Lite, I think) was like cold, wet nectar of the Gods, even to my beer-snobbish tastebuds. I shared some with Ed and we paddled on, revived, to our destination – our own cooler of microbrews waiting patiently.

—Pete Gauvin, Truckee

24 Hours of Ale

At the Coolest 24 hour MTB event near Auburn, I was fully prepared to test my theory that beer is a performance enhancing secret weapon for long-distance mountain biking. I hadn’t been able to train and was NOT relishing the severe beating I was about to endure, and I figured the beer might help dull the pain of riding a mountain bike for 24 hours straight. I arrived in beautiful Cool, CA, about two hours before the starting gun and began to drink beer as rapidly as possible. By the time I walked my bike to the start area I was six beers deep and in a super-friendly mood.

“Are you in the solo single-speed division?” a chatty competitor inquired as we prepared to start the race. This guy was built like a greyhound and I could tell he was a real pro. I nodded my head as his friendly curiosity turned to bewilderment while watching me fill a hydration bladder with beer after beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to be specific. His facial expression changed to awkward concern as he realized that I was using beer for hydration. “Uh, good luck, dude,” he said with pity in his voice. In response I shot him a look of pity as well, but more exaggerated and sarcastic. Suddenly the gun went off and the race was on.

At first I was very wobbly, but two laps and three hours into the race I hit my stride. I passed a bunch of other solo riders and was only lapped by one other soloist: the greyhound guy. My confidence was increasing and I began to believe that energy gel and beer really were a secret weapon for long distance riding.

My original plan was to drink two beers per lap for the full 24 hours, or one-half a hydration bladder per lap. Things started to fall apart when I absolutely lost the ability to drink beer and had to switch to water around 10 p.m. For the rest of the race I ate and drank very little. The pain became unbearable around 4 a.m. and I surrendered my pride and collapsed into my tent. The idea was to sleep until five and resume riding, but I couldn’t wake up at five and slept until seven. During the final five hours I only completed two laps for a total of 10. This was good enough for seventh place in the solo division. But the top racers completed more than 20 laps, which put my efforts into beer-goggled perspective.

Still, I achieved double digits in my lap count for a grand total of 120 rugged miles. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, and I was feeling proud of myself. To celebrate I staggered over to my cooler and opened a beer. The smell made me gag but I forced it down. After a short episode of dry heaving I opened another beer and chugged it as well. A pleasant feeling crept over me. Grabbing another brewski, I wobbled over to the lunch tent for some free chili.

– Matt Niswonger, Santa Cruz

The Pinnacles in August

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Jack Holmgren and I developed a taste for climbing at Pinnacles during July and August. I know, I know, it was 105 in the shade. How could we think about climbing? Well, hectic jobs (Jack’s an attorney and I was a school teacher) and the responsibilities of fatherhood dictated when we could climb far more than the thermometer. We both had to climb, so we braved the heat.

Because of our lives’ shared responsibilities and rhythms, we found that even when the climate was most inhospitable, certain times and places yielded comfort and adventure.

Our emerging climbing pattern mitigated the impact upon our families. We would meet at 3 a.m. at the McDonald’s parking lot in Soledad, leave a car and drive to Pinnacles, hike in by headlamp and climb at first light. We often made it home by noon, with time to transport kids to music lessons, dance recitals and baseball games. Fortuitously, this schedule also allowed us to escape the worst of the summer heat.

Occasionally, however, we blew it.

I remember one late August day when we lingered too long at Piedras Bonitas. To approach Piedras, we usually parked just outside the West entrance cattle guard (yes, that no parking sign is specifically directed at us) and hiked along the fence until we hit a ridge connecting with the High Peaks; a bit more than two miles.

The new route climbing was fascinating and it was well past noon when we started to unlace our shoes. It was still fairly mellow in the shade where we’d stashed our packs, but by the time I hit the ridge I was sweating buckets. I looked back at Jack. He was sweating and gasping, too.

I went into my ‘don’t-quit-until-it’s-over’ trudge and tried to tune out my discomfort. I took frequent swigs from my water bottle and could hear Jack crunching sticks about 10 yards behind me. Usually I enjoyed the walk out, the scents of heated sage and chemise, the smell of hot dust, sweet and aromatic. Not this time. I felt my brain starting to cook beneath my tractor cap.

Finally reaching the car, I popped the trunk, got out extra water and poured half of it over my head. Ahhh! I took a long drink and turned to make a sarcastic comment to Jack. No Jack.

My hearing’s not the best, but surely I would have heard Jack crash unconscious into the brush. Still, he wasn’t there.

I dropped several bottles of water and a tarp into my pack, turned and headed back up the hill. Waves of heat shimmered above the chemise. I stared at my toes and trudged on.

Soon after, I heard the crunch of a footstep and looked up. Weaving like a punch-drunk boxer, Jack staggered down the slope. I greeted him with a water bottle. He snatched it, poured half over the back of his neck and drank the rest. He took several deep breaths, then gasped that he’d almost passed out. The heat drove him to his knees and he had crawled under a bush for a few moments of rest in the shade, before staggering on.

We were too knackered to talk much when we got to the car. I’m a lifelong believer in the magical restorative properties of beer. It is the elixir of life. I reached in the cooler, grabbed a Tecate, popped it and inhaled the cold brew. Jack, abstemious as usual, stuck with water. We tacitly agreed to give ourselves a few days off from August climbing.

—Robert Walton, King City