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Out of the Ordinary

There’s nothing wrong with Disney World or the beach, but we found some executives around Alabama who are much more adventurous types.

Rafting the whitewater of Patagonia’s Futaleufu helps Mobile banker David Turner (right front) disconnect from everyday life. Traveling companions include Birmingham commercial real estate exec Gary Pharo (back left) and  Michael Upshaw.

Rafting the whitewater of Patagonia’s Futaleufu helps Mobile banker David Turner (right front) disconnect from everyday life. Traveling companions include Birmingham commercial real estate exec Gary Pharo (back left) and Michael Upshaw.

A WILD RIDE

David Turner | President, BancorpSouth, Mobile | River Rafting

David Turner can’t remember camping out a single time when he was growing up. But about 18 years ago, when a friend from college was planning a rafting trip in Montana, Turner was intrigued. After a rough first night spent in a tent, in the rain, Turner enjoyed a wonderful week of hiking, rafting and fishing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Their guide, Joe Tonsmeire, who was originally from Mobile, advised them to give him their watches at the beginning of the trip. “You won’t need them,” he assured the group.

After that, Turner was hooked on rafting. Since then, he and his two buddies from that trip have added a few more friends from cities around the Southeast, and every 18 months or so, the group travels to far-flung places in the United States and Canada to experience nature in all her glory, from an inflatable raft that sometimes floats along tranquilly and sometimes is beaten about by rapids. They’ve rafted the Grand Canyon a couple of times, as well as two rivers in British Columbia, always booking their journeys through reputable outfitters.

Their last trip, taken in January of 2011, is going to be hard to top, Turner admits. They traveled to Santiago, Chile, then flew four hours south before traveling several hours by bus to the Futaleufu River in Patagonia. While there, the group pushed themselves out of their comfort zones by rappelling down a 300-foot cliff. “The first step is the most intimidating,” Turner says. “Then there’s nowhere to go but down.” 

And the Futaleufu’s rapids provided “a wet experience, a wild ride—the most fun I’ve ever had rafting,” on a catamaran raft.

Being in the middle of nowhere gives him a chance to disconnect from his everyday life, and on the Chile trip that meant having to wait a week to find out whether his beloved Auburn had won the national championship.

The Futaleufu provided incredible scenery, with mountain peaks towering over crystal green glacier water. Over the years, Turner has encountered wildlife such as mountain sheep, grizzly bears, snakes, deer and eagles. “In Canada, the eagles became like pigeons in (downtown Mobile’s) Bienville Square, all over the place,” he laughs.

While they haven’t yet made plans for their next trip—“It’s amazing how our lives sometimes interfere with our fun,” he jokes—Turner says he would love to go on the Zambezi River in Africa, and there’s a section of river in Peru that looks enticing. 

NOT-SO-LAZY RIVER

Bob Bender | President, Springdale Travel, Mobile | Grand Canyon rafting

As the president of Springdale Travel in Mobile, Bob Bender could go anywhere in the world, literally, in the name of research to help his clients plan their trips. Still, he’s obsessed with the Grand Canyon—and, specifically, with the 270-mile raft trip to Lake Mead at its heart. “I’d rank that trip in the top 10 things in the world to do,” he says. 

Three weeks and 270 miles by raft through the Grand Canyon and seeing almost no one but your rafting team is Bob Bender’s favorite thing on the planet.

Bender’s passion for travel was ignited as a college student at the University of South Alabama, when he started working for Hatch River Expeditions in Vernal, Utah, during the summer and a couple of spring quarters as a tour guide. (Ted Hatch, the colorful owner of the outfitting company, preferred Southern boys because they were so polite, Bender says.)

Although it sounds like fun, and it was, the job eventually led to his career as a travel agent and to a 33-year marriage to his wife, Mary, whom he met on the Cataract Canyon trip.

“Reality eventually hits us all,” Bender says, and so when he was 30, he quit his nomadic lifestyle and settled down. But the river still flows through his veins, and last fall he and a group of 10 people went on a kind of “reunion” trip. Five of them had done a private trip in December of 1978. “We’re all over 60 now,” he jokes.

“We didn’t think we’d be alive, much less doing it together again.”

One of his friends won a lottery for a private Grand Canyon trip last fall, and at the end of October the group departed on 16-foot boats packed with “an incredible amount of stuff,” Bender says, for their 21-day journey. “We never ran out of beer or cocktails,” he says proudly. They saw only a handful of other people on the trip. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun we had,” he says.

Not only were they alive, but the group was just as active as ever, preparing five-course meals and enjoying incredible scenery. One of Bender’s favorite spots is Thunder Falls, which is the reward for hiking six miles to the waterfall that pours out of the cliff face overlooking Surprise Valley.

Although he’s been rafting in Chile and British Columbia, Bender says that rafting the Grand Canyon is “still my favorite thing on this planet to do.” 

David Sherrod at the peak of the Rockies.

SNOW DAYS

David Sherrod | Program manager, AECOM, Florence | Mountaineering in the Rockies

David Sherrod has deep familial roots in north Alabama, but his heart is in the Rocky Mountains. In college, some serious outdoor-enthusiast friends introduced him to rock climbing. A few years later, while ascending to Camp Muir on “unbelievably massive” Mount Rainier in Washington, Sherrod realized that in order to survive in extreme conditions, he would need the right equipment, as well as a lot of knowledge. Since then, he has acquired both, and has ice-climbed on Rainier. He now takes every possible opportunity to head west and conquer the snow-covered mountains.

His son, Blakely, a materials engineer for the Department of Defense at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, is his frequent travel partner. “We love Colorado,” Sherrod says. They try to take an annual trip in late April or early May, when the extreme cold (-25° F) and savage winds reduce the mountains to an isolated realm with few visitors. “We love the challenge of getting out there and getting on a summit. The snow is pristine, 10 to 15 feet deep, and so dry it’s like sugar.” 

Adjusting to the altitude change is a major challenge. “Once you get to 13,000 feet, your respiration rate is much faster and you become fatigued so much more quickly with the lower available oxygen,” Sherrod says. “It’s much wiser to give yourself a few days to acclimatize to the higher altitude.”A few years ago, the Sherrods drove for 22 hours in David’s SUV loaded with their equipment to the White River National Forest on snow-covered mountain roads to an elevation of 12,000 feet. After driving all night, they then hiked about three miles through the snow carrying 60-pound backpacks and set up base camp. Early the next morning, they roped up and made the five-hour ascent through the Cristo Couloir to the 14,265-foot summit of Quandary Peak. They used crampons on their climbing boots and ice axes to prevent them from slipping on the rock-hard ice and snow during the ascent. “We were pretty worn out,” he says of that trip.

That’s just one of many lessons he has learned in his years of experience as a climber. After enduring a slight case of frostbite to a fingertip, he is constantly reminded of the unforgiving, hostile elements and carries an extra pair of guide gloves.

Sherrod won’t be climbing this year because Blakely is getting married in June. But next year, he hopes they’ll be back on a snowy mountain somewhere, savoring the azure-blue sky at the summit. “Until you spend time doing something like this, you don’t realize how insignificant one little human being is,” he says. 

Kent and Julie Stewart show their colors atop Mount Vinson in central Antarctica on their way to scaling the high points of every continent.

CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN

Kent Stewart | CEO, Reli Settlement Solutions LLC, Birmingham | Mountain climbing on six continents, and counting

Ask Kent Stewart where his obsession with mountain climbing came from, and he might say it came out of thin air. Or more specifically, it came from “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book about his attempt to climb Mount Everest. Stewart happened to pick it up at the airport in 2005, when he and his wife, Julie, were setting out for the long plane ride to South Africa.

Stewart, who had never climbed a mountain in his life, might have seemed an unlikely candidate to scale the tallest summit of all seven continents. But when he climbs the final peak, Mount Everest, in March of 2013, he will have achieved what fewer than 300 people have ever done.

Reading “Into Thin Air” inspired the Stewarts to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2006. “It was a life-changing experience,” he recalls. In the meantime, he read another book, “Seven Summits” by Dick Bass, who wanted to climb the seven highest mountains in the world. Stewart thought, why not?

Over the next few years, the Stewarts tackled Mount Elbrus in Russia; Mount Vinson in Antarctica, where they had “the unique experience of being one of very few people in the middle of that continent;” Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, where on the day of their summit they actually rescued another climber who had given up.

When they attempted Denali, or Mount McKinley, in Alaska, they ran into terrible weather at 14,000 feet of the 20,320-foot summit—a whiteout, with 50-mile-per-hour winds—and decided they just couldn’t risk it. Undeterred, Stewart returned last year and summited the mountain solo.

The difference between the two of them, he says, is that Julie loves the whole experience, including the climb itself, while Kent only enjoys it after he gets to the top. Mountain climbing is kind of a metaphor for marriage, he says: “If you can stand each other in a tent at 20,000 feet, you can stand each other at home.”

At 55 years old, Stewart says he’s in much better shape now than he was when this quest began. He runs three days a week and is working out with a personal trainer twice a week in preparation for his Mount Everest trip.

In March of 2013, he leaves for Nepal, and the prospect both excites and terrifies him. “Now that I’m so far into it, there’s no way I can’t at least give Mount Everest a chance,” he says. 

Believing that “to be inspired, we need to step out into the unknown and witness the world around us,” Krista Conlin headed for Africa. Machu Picchu is next.

JUNGLE OUT THERE

Krista Conlin | Founder and principal, KC Projects, Birmingham | World traveler

For Krista Conlin, who owns her own public relations firm in Birmingham, a love of travel is in her blood. Her grandmother, who spoke several languages and went to Europe twice a year, encouraged her to explore whenever possible. After college, Conlin moved to London, where she lived for two years while traveling all over Europe, the United Kingdom, Egypt and Turkey, “literally on a dime, roughing it,” she says.

After earning an MBA at the University of Miami, she moved back to her native Birmingham and focused on her career—but something was missing. “I needed to feed my spirit by traveling,” she says. Planning a trip to a place she’s never been gives her something to look forward to and gets her out of her comfort zone. “For me, to be inspired, we need to step out into the unknown and witness the world around us. It builds character.”

She had always wanted to go to Kenya, which she considers “the soul of Africa,” and in October of 2010 she went there on a two-week spiritual adventure, alone. “I saw it as a vision trip of ‘voluntourism,’” she says. It was an opportunity for her not only to take in the amazing natural beauty of the countryside, but also to meet Kenyans and experience the heartbreaking poverty of the people. She took 200 pairs of sunglasses for children, visited three orphanages and even adopted a baby elephant. 

In Kenya, Conlin witnessed the Great Migration of thousands of wildebeasts, zebras and gazelles crossing the plains. She experienced the “magical silence” of being wedged between earth and sky in a hot air balloon at dawn, skimming over the herds of animals as they dodged the shadow of the balloon on the Masai Mara. “It was a true adventure, a life-changing experience for me,” she says.

After her trip, Conlin’s grandmother wanted to know where she planned to go next. One of her ideas was Machu Picchu in Peru, which was one of the few places her grandmother had never been. Just a few months later, her grandmother died. Conlin plans to leave for her trip to Peru and the Amazon rainforest on May 23, the one-year anniversary of her grandmother’s death—a fitting tribute to the world traveler who inspired her granddaughter in so many ways.

“She’s a humongous influence on what I do and who I am,” Conlin says. “She gifted me with an appreciation for life.”

Michelle Roberts Matthews is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

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