Extreme Butte County
Four local athletes and their awe-inspiring feats
What makes an “extreme” athlete? Definitions vary, but one could argue that either of two requirements needs to be met: Disregarding good sense in the name of thrill-seeking (for example, strapping on a fabric wingsuit and jumping out of a hot-air balloon) or intensely pushing oneself to physical and mental limits (riding a mountain bike over a 250-mile course through the Himalayas). In this special issue, the CN&R profiles four local athletes who have pursued lofty heights, excessive speeds, overwhelming challenges and, more than anything, exhilarating new experiences in Butte County and beyond.
Skydiver finds his calling with wingsuiting, eyes even loftier heights
Most people would jump out of a plane only in an emergency. But for Jason Childs, skydiving has become a hobby, a passion and his sport of choice.
The 33-year-old said he came to a turning point after he had completed about 350 jumps. That’s when he first slipped into a wingsuit—a specialized jumpsuit with fabric between the legs and under the arms for increased surface area—and experienced what it’s like to fly like a bird.
“It truly is flying—you are your wing, and you can go wherever you want. You can go for miles,” Childs said. “The moment I jumped out of the plane in that wingsuit, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was life-changing.”
Wingsuiting is considered extremely dangerous, a sport reserved for adrenaline junkies and people with a death wish. Childs doesn’t deny the danger, and he’s heard every argument against skydiving.
So, does he feel safe?
“Statistically, skydiving is safer than driving, but people feel [driving] is more socially acceptable and that you’re not in harm’s way while driving,” Childs said. “We’re just like everyone else; we just skydive. That’s our chosen rush. Some people ride motorcycles at 150 mph, race cars, or play water polo—I consider that dangerous because I can’t swim that long. But skydiving is just strong to me.
“The gear we have is top-notch, and we do intensive gear checks before every jump. We try to be safe as possible. But, accidents do happen.”
Like his jump No. 42, for example.
After Childs exited the plane, all went well until it was time to deploy his main parachute. When he did, his reserve chute deployed along with it, an extremely rare and dangerous occurrence.
“The danger in both parachutes deploying is that the lines can become entangled and neither parachute inflates properly,” Childs explained. “Then gravity takes over.”
Fortunately, the lines remained separate, and Childs calmly and gingerly navigated his way back to terra firma.
“I landed uneventfully, picked up my stuff, walked [away], and took the rest of the day off,” he said.
Childs completed his first skydive four years ago, and he’s since completed more than 700 jumps, including 500 “relative work” jumps (belly formation with a parachute, currently the most popular skydiving discipline), 150 wingsuit jumps and 10 jumps out of hot-air balloons.
His longest freefall distance is 15,171 feet (nearly three miles), and he’s reached speeds of 190 mph, according to his digital altimeter. The highest altitude he’s jumped from is 18,500 feet, but he hopes to eclipse that personal record once he completes his high-altitude training. When he does, he’ll be able to exit anywhere from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet.
His passion has become a family affair. He and his wife, Jenn (who’s closing in on 300 jumps), regularly bring their two children (7-year-old Averi and 5-year-old Jett) to the drop zone. Childs sees it as an opportunity to provide his kids with a well-rounded idea of the sport—including the accidents.
“They’ve been around malfunctions. They’ve been around serious injury. They’ve actually seen someone hit the ground under spinning reserve [when a chute does not fully inflate, causing the skydiver to spin out of control],” Childs said. “I was nervous at that point. But kids are resilient. You teach them what happened, what went wrong, and they get it.”
Both Averi and Jett have flown in a wind tunnel (used for training purposes) with their parents, but only Averi has asked to jump.
In addition to the adrenaline rush, Childs said he returns to the sport because of the people. He’s shared air time with millionaire inventors, a man traveling the country in his RV, a judge, and a military veteran of three wars who had jumped from planes in the 1960s, among others.
“The people are genuine,” Childs said. “When you start skydiving, it’s about the jump. Then you soon realize you keep going back because of the people.”
Champion mountain-bike racer started out in Upper Bidwell Park
“There’s just something about riding a bike really fast down a hill,” Ariana Altier said of her love for downhill mountain-bike racing. Last year, as one of three women on Chico State’s mountain-biking team, the 20-year-old sustainable-manufacturing major was a Division II national champion.
In fact, Altier loves mountain biking so much that she’s balking at the prospect of becoming a professional racer once her college career is over in a couple of years. Quite simply, the Chico State junior doesn’t like the idea of turning her passion into a job.
“I’ve definitely had some sponsor offers, and that’d be cool,” she said during a recent interview. “But at the same time, I don’t want to take the fun out of something that I really enjoy.
“I just want to pursue [racing] for a few years and see where I can go with it. I’m not really looking to get sponsored and become a highly paid athlete.”
She still fully intends to compete at her highest level. This summer—her first on the professional circuit—has been a success; with two more races to go, she is currently ranked second in the women’s professional bracket of the California Enduro Series.
The increasingly popular enduro discipline is similar to what casual riders do with their friends—in between timed downhill sections, racers take as much time as they want riding back up the mountain. Though it’s not her first choice, she believes enduro is where she will excel, expressing doubt that she “has what it takes” to hit the 60-foot gaps on professional downhill race courses. She feels that, without any mechanical issues, she’ll be able to maintain her ranking in the California Enduro Series, and maybe even put pressure on the first-place racer.
Altier began riding bikes at an early age. In elementary school, she logged about 10 miles a day commuting from her former home near Upper Bidwell Park. She estimates that she was 10 years old the first time she rode the Chico Wildflower Century; as she got older, she started cycling in timed uphill trials.
But she didn’t take interest in mountain bikes until she was 15, when she found a discarded “Walmart bike” in the bushes at Lindo Channel and started “tinkering around on the trails in Upper Park.”
“With mountain biking, there’s this freedom of hopping on your bike, riding for miles, seeing the back country, and having fun doing it,” she said. “That’s really what got me into mountain biking—exploring Upper Park.
“There’s also the adrenaline rush that comes with downhill mountain biking,” she added. “I wouldn’t say that I’m an adrenaline junkie, but that’s definitely a huge part of it.”
In her junior year at Chico High School, she bought a hard-tail mountain bike with front suspension, and began riding with a friend and fellow cyclist, Zora Thomas, who now rides for the mountain-bike team at UC Santa Cruz. The two helped motivate each other on the trails, and in Altier’s senior year of high school, they both bought full-suspension bikes and began riding four times a week.
When time came to start considering her college options, Altier was looking specifically at schools with women’s mountain-biking teams. She eventually chose to attend Chico State, where she got her first taste of organized mountain-bike racing.
Altier began competing in the lowest racing category her freshman year, but progressed throughout the season. In her last race that year, against the best competition available, she took first place. She subsequently made a habit of winning, going undefeated during her sophomore year. Her season culminated in the national championship race in New Mexico; her time was 17 seconds better than the second-place finisher.
Though she acknowledged she wants to defend her title this season, she modestly changed the subject to turning more young women on to mountain biking. This year, barring unexpected recruits, Chico State’s women’s team is down to two members.
“It’s a masculine sport,” she said. “The atmosphere at a mountain-bike race is dudes with their shirts off, yelling at people. We definitely need to appeal more to the female crowd, somehow.”
Rock and ice climber revels in the challenge of scaling mountains
For someone who spends a good amount of his free time dangling from rock faces and sheer walls of ice, Arean Ellis of Paradise is surprisingly unimpressed with extreme-sports athletes whose sole purpose is chasing highs of adrenaline.
The 29-year-old mountaineer, rock-and-ice climber, full-time electrician and part-time guide for SWS Mountain Guides (based at Mount Shasta) admits that, every so often, he’ll get a rush from performing a series of technical moves or taking a fall while he’s on a roped climb. But Ellis isn’t drawn to the slopes of Mount Shasta, Mount Whitney or Mount Lassen—some of his favored destinations—for momentary thrills.
For example, he’s often been asked if he would consider skydiving.
“I wouldn’t have any control,” he said during a recent interview, shaking his head. “I’m relying on a chute to open—how do I know the guy who packed it did it right?
“When I’m mountaineering, if I’m not in control of a situation, I’m probably going to bail. Actually, if I feel I’m losing control, it’s probably already too late.”
Rather, he gets the most pleasure from setting a four- or five-day objective (he calls his expeditions “projects”) and completing it one carefully considered decision at a time. Though he pinpointed certain aspects of mountaineering he finds appealing—the solitude, natural beauty and physicality of scaling a mountain—he isn’t entirely sure why he seeks such grueling tests of his mental and physical endurance.
“That’s the age-old question. The typical response people use is ‘Because it’s there,’” Ellis said, referring to legendary British mountaineer George Mallory’s reason for his repeated attempts at reaching the summit of Mount Everest. “To some degree, that’s true: ‘That mountain looks cool, I want to go climb it.’
“Some of it also has to do with conquering yourself,” he reflected. “It takes a lot to get up a mountain.”
Ellis started rock climbing a few years before he moved to Butte County about a decade ago. He started by “reading as many books as I could get my hands on,” familiarizing himself with the equipment and techniques before he roped his friends into trying full-on rock climbing with him. He took to it immediately, beginning what would become an ongoing need to satisfy the “part of rock climbing and mountaineering that makes you want to do something more difficult.”
For Ellis, ice climbing was that next step. About four years ago, he began testing his skills on frozen waterfalls and in shaded mountain gullies, which keep the previous year’s snow frozen through summer and into late fall.
Compared to rock climbing, ice climbing is a more mentally demanding discipline, Ellis explained. Not only is ice more fragile than rock (it’s more prone to crack or pull away), but it changes throughout the day. A route that is hard and brittle during a morning ascent could be all but mush by mid-afternoon. That’s why it’s important to “read the ice,” Ellis said. He constantly takes note of cracks, texture and the sound of his pick striking the ice.
That painstaking approach, he believes, has kept him unharmed through his years of mountaineering; his worst injury to date is a strained back from shoveling snow. While climbing mountains can be “as dangerous as I want it to be,” he said, he typically opts to stay within his safety margins.
He and a climbing partner are looking forward to an ice-climbing project they discovered last winter in an adjacent county. Though he acknowledged the climb is within an hour’s drive of Chico, Ellis declined to be specific about its location.
He prefers to keep the spot off the beaten path because conquering mountains—and himself—has become a way to escape “the humdrum, the monotony of everyday life,” Ellis said.
“It’s a very simplistic endeavor. Some say, ‘It’s so technical, there’s so much to keep in mind,’ but it really comes down to, ‘I’m here, this is where I want to be, and everything I need to get there is in my pack.’”
Cross-country mountain biker pushes himself to the brink in Himalayas
After crossing a couple dozen suspension bridges on his mountain bike over the previous week, Brian Sweat approached one that looked a lot like the others.
It was March of this year in the Nepalese Himalayas. Sweat was riding in the annual Yak Attack race—a 10-stage, 250-mile event challenging riders from around the globe with trails as high as 18,000 feet in elevation, temperatures that ranged from highs in the mid-80s to lows in the single digits, and terrain (steep grades, streams, snow, mud and landslides) that wreaked havoc on the riders over the course of the race.
Sweat thought he could ride over this particular bridge, suspended 400 feet over a river. But in crossing, he clipped both of his handlebars on the bridge ropes at roughly 25 miles per hour; he flipped over his handlebars, landed on his back, rolled several times and skidded to a halt on his stomach.
“I thought I was dead. As soon as I caught my bar, I had that moment of, ‘If I die right now and my bike goes over, no one’s going to find me down there,’” said the 25-year-old Sweat. “You’re at the base of some mountain in the Himalayas, and it’s not like search and rescue is easy up there.”
But his bike didn’t go over. It hung over the chasm, tangled in the ropes and wires of the swaying bridge.
Sweat suffered compression fractures of three vertebrae from the crash, and he woke up the next day with snow blindness, which essentially means his eyeballs were sunburned. Furthering his discomfort, he was also on antibiotics after catching a stomach bug a few days prior. Sweat lost 20 pounds by the time he left Nepal.
“That was a rough 48-hour period,” he recalled. Sweat didn’t finish the race with an official time. However, despite his ailments, he managed to successfully cross the finish line—an accomplishment in itself.
Something innate beyond the rush of living on the edge drives the downhill mountain biker to events like the Yak Attack.
“Everybody there had this mentality that they wanted to push themselves, to test the limits of their bodies and minds,” said Sweat who, during the race, carried 40 pounds of gear on his back at an elevation where the oxygen is half the amount at sea level. “This race was more mental than it was physical. That’s what compels you—to see who you really are.”
Nepal, a developing country, sits in the bottom 10 percent of the world in terms of wealth, according to the International Monetary Fund. Sweat donated about $400 worth of unused gear to local riders before he left.
While he hasn’t competed for the last five months, Sweat is looking forward to testing his body and mind in future races similar to the Yak Attack in South Africa and Mongolia.
Sweat is currently training to become a yoga instructor. Though practicing yoga and mountain biking might appear to be a dichotomy of disposition, Sweat believes the two dovetail nicely. “Mountain biking and riding are very cyclical; you use the same muscles over and over and they tighten up,” Sweat said. “Yoga is a way to stretch those muscles out, make them more powerful over the course of an entire stroke.
“Yoga calms your mind down,” he continued. “It lets you focus. On a bike, you need to focus. If you’re descending at 70 kilometers per hour down a hill in Nepal and your mind’s wandering, you’re not going to end up OK.”
This relaxed temperament helps build a foundation of confidence for Sweat, leaving no room for hesitation.
“You can’t hesitate when you’re riding. That’s not part of the sport,” Sweat said. “Hesitation usually means injury—if you hesitate, you make a mistake and you fall—bad.”