In recent times the number of extreme sports has proliferated globally as both athletes and adventurers seek out new thrills and conquests. Canyoneering, an adventure sport that includes swimming, scrambling, jumping and rappelling down river gorges, has only recently come to the East Coast after long popularity in the American southwest. Throughout the rest of the world including South America and Australia it’s known as canyoning, or “kloofing” in South Africa. My good friend Chris Baker helped introduce it to New York (and me) by semi-weekly summer quests to rappel off New York’s most formidable waterfalls. Today I seek to combine canyoneering with the latest new adventure sport to be introduced to the United States: extreme ironing.
A gushing current of whitewater flows past my submerged ankles as my heels inch over the ledge. My brake hand slowly lets out rope. I lean backwards allowing gravity to pull me. The rope is anchored above to a tree, and slips through a rappelling device clipped into my harness that with controlled friction I will use to descend into the pool of water 60-feet below.
Drowning out the roar of the falls with a Tarzan yell, I push off with my feet to swing into the raging falls. Secured to my harness (each on its own carabineer) and bouncing violently as I bop in and out of the waterfall hangs a tabletop ironing board and a simple clothes iron.
Extreme Ironing, EI for short, began in England in 1997 when a rock climber thought to combine the thrills of extreme sports with the refinement of a freshly-pressed shirt. The sport quickly spread to Germany, South Africa, and the Netherlands with Extreme Ironers adding irons and boards to their equipment lists for virtually every conceivable action adventure. The Internet is full of videos and photos of extreme ironers ironing in all seasons on remote mountain peaks, suspended from craggy cliffs, skydiving mid-air, and even scuba diving in the ocean. What was missing from the Internet prior to March 2013 (when I posted an invite on Facebook) was an American extreme ironing movement.
Later that month, three fellow organizers of the outdoor adventure meet-up group, Hudson Valley Hikers which Chris founded, joined me on a winter hike to try out Extreme Ironing and form the first-known American EI chapter.
Matt, Caysey, Erika and I snowshoed through snow and ice, scaled rock walls and crawled deep into an underground cave in pursuit of remote locations in which to iron. Not only did we immediately realize how soothing and therapeutic ironing can be, but having now experienced the feel of a newly-creased dress shirt in the wild, there could be no going back to the wrinkled, soiled wardrobe of previous adventures.
We also quickly learned how eye-catching an ironing board strapped to one’s hiking backpack could be to onlookers. Photos multiplied on the World Wide Web. Soon came an on-air interview on San Francisco’s Hot 101.7 morning show.
In subsequent months came Extreme Ironing Kayaking, EI Cliff Jumping, EI Ropeswinging, EI Mountaineering, and now today’s inauguration of EI Canyoneering.
As I dangle in the falls on the climber’s rope, the iron and board dangling from my harness offsets my balance, causing me to self-acknowledge why ironing on rappel is considered extreme.
Midway down the falls my brake hand holds the rope against my back. My free hand unclips the board, and props it on my outstretched legs. I reach for the shirt that I will iron. It’s drenched as if it just came out of the washing machine. Careful not to drop the shirt into the pool of water below, I lay it on the board. I carefully reach my left hand to take over the brake behind my back thereby freeing up my dominant hand. The rope spins me in circles. Water thumps steadily from above onto the construction cone that I wear on my head in lieu of a helmet.
I take in the view. The river flows over a white conglomerate cliff that hovers far and wide over the swimming hole ten feet below. White ripples form where the water meets the pool. Pitch pine trees and a hardy oak dot the shoreline.
The ironing time has come at last. With my free right hand I unclip the iron from its carabineer. Suspended in mid-air with water droplets showering down I press the iron to the board. Its takes coordination, focus and – swaying on the rope – an incredible amount of balance. It’s why I argue that extreme ironing is not just a sport – but an art form.
Perhaps it’s also the challenge that extreme ironing poses, more than the refinement of a freshly pressed shirt – that really makes it so attractive. Not to mention conspicuous. Almost from the start media attention has flocked to the sport. We’ve received phone calls from popular programs on CBS and Animal Planet. But the ultimate American acceptance of extreme ironing came via an October 1, 2013 segment on NBC’s The TODAY Show. Therein we were asked to initiate co-host Matt Lauer into EI ranks. A film crew videotaped us over the course of two days in Ulster County’s Mohonk Preserve, with a second day ironing in Manhattan’s Central Park. There in rowboats, in a bandshell and on the second floor of a double-decker tour bus we demonstrated the merits of EI to the Big Apple. The segment, which aired as part of a series called Fact or Fiction, answered some of the more common questions newcomers have including how we heat the irons (fire and solar among them), proper technique (start with the shirt’s collar), and safety protocols to avoid burns and bruises when in the backcountry.
Follow this link to view the October 1, 2013 Extreme Ironing Appearance on The TODAY Show.
Upon finishing the first-documented extreme ironing canyoneering rappel over a waterfall, Chris swims out to meet me. We celebrate by dousing each other with water poured through the inverted construction cone with the same excitement as a team that just won the Superbowl. As insignificant as today’s waterfall rappel may be to the world, to us it’s an acknowledgement that the adventure sports of canyoneering and extreme ironing have made their home in the northeast United States.
Mike Kelsey has wandering in his blood and writes about his adventures at www.MikeKelseyAdventures.com. View YouTube videos of his exploits at www.FollowMikeKelsey.com, and write him at KelseyADK@yahoo.com. This article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Berkshire HomeStyle magazine.