From learning to climb with the legendary Jim “The Bird” Bridwell, to being on a film production crew for National Geographic on a caving expedition which led to a monumental discovery in the Yucatán, to working his day job as a ranger saving lives and putting out fires, it’s safe to say that this week’s Shoestring Warrior leads a pretty epic life! Meet Shoestring Warrior, ranger, and film and television producer Greg Francek.
How did Greg get started on his journey of epic adventures? Greg’s life took a turn towards adventure when he was in high school and a group of U.S. Marines came to give a climbing and rappelling demonstration. He raised his hand to volunteer to learn to tie a Swiss seat harness and to rappel off of the roof of the gym! That was it, he was hooked.
I did two rappels that day and one of the Marines gifted me a locking carabiner as a souvenir. It wasn’t long before I had checked out rock climbing and mountaineering books from the public library and headed to the rocks.
Greg’s love for climbing extends to caves and he’s an experienced caver and diver. If you were captivated by the story of the boys soccer team trapped in the cave in Thailand and the massive expedition to rescue them, then I have a feeling you’ll find Greg’s adventures below pretty interesting!
Shoestring Warrior: Greg Francek
Ranger and Film and Television Producer
What are your passions outside of work?
Outside of my career(s) I enjoy a variety of recreational activities, including fishing, hiking/running, snow skiing, mountaineering, cave exploration, reading and spending time with my family.
Tell us about yourself!
I’m a 51 year old married father of two teenage boys. My family and I live in Jackson, California. Jackson is a small historic Gold Rush town which is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. In addition to my primary career as a ranger, I work in television & film production.
How would you describe your level of camping experience?
I’m not a camper, per se, but have spent countless nights sleeping in the wild during adventure pursuits and while in the course of my work as a ranger. I have memories of everything from overnighting in beautiful high mountain meadows to desperate unplanned bivouacs while hunkered-down on an icy mountain face. I’m a caver, sometimes on expeditions into deep and complicated caves systems we spend as long as one week underground. Typically, such cave camps are primitive with minimal comforts and can be, depending on ones’ perspective, either exciting or horribly intense with thousands of feet of rock overhead and perhaps miles of difficult travel separating the party from the cave entrance.
The place I enjoy the least: jungles. The most miserable nights I ever spent were during a trek through the Borneo jungle. Days of pouring rain, endless leeches and punishing humidity. It was an experience I don’t care to repeat. Even our local guide was glad when we eventually walked into a logging camp and graciously accepted their hospitality.
When did you discover your love for the outdoors?
As a kid growing up in California’s Central Valley I used to head out into the farmland on mini-adventures. I would bring a lunch, pellet gun and sometimes a fishing pole, spending hours wandering and exploring. I developed an interest in maps and found the benefit and excitement of dreaming up and planning my little outings. Spreading out a map and hatching a scheme for an adventure big or small, is simple freedom. My life took a big turn during my freshman year when a group of U.S. Marines gave a rappelling and climbing demonstration at my east Bay Area high school. I raised my hand when they asked if anyone wanted to learn to tie a Swiss seat harness and do a rappel off of the gymnasium roof. I did two rappels that day and one of the Marines gifted me a locking carabiner as a souvenir. It wasn’t long before I headed to the library and checked out rock climbing and mountaineering books. My first clumsy climbing experiences were self taught at a local sandstone crag called Rock City. After a buddy and myself scared the daylights out of ourselves I realized that I needed some more guidance which I found in some kind and enthusiastic employees at a local mountaineering store. Before long I was actually following some easier routes and working after-school jobs to buy gear of my own. When I got my drivers’ license I spent a summer working on the staff at a summer camp just outside of Yosemite NP. The camp director heard I was a budding climber and offered to introduce me to her friend Jim who was an experienced Yosemite climber. A couple of weeks later I drove into Yosemite and met up with Jim at the deli in Yosemite Village. I quickly realized that “Jim” was in fact the legendary climber Jim “The Bird” Bridwell.
“Holy crap, how was I going to be able to keep up with him” I thought.
We had a fantastic full day of climbing that culminated with The Bird putting me on my first real Yosemite lead at a far more difficult grade than I imagined I would climb that day. The specific route was one that I would go back to repeat many times over the years. The Bird was a great guy who always remembered my name long after that first great day. I wish that later in life I could have told him how much he influenced my life. Unfortunately, The Bird passed away recently, my wife, youngest son and I attended his memorial service in Yosemite Valley and heard stories from many others about how he also influenced their lives.
It doesn’t require much money or fancy gear – you don’t need the latest satellite gadgets or super wicking running clothes, just get together some simple basics and get out there!
What led you to become a ranger?
I started working as a ranger at the age of 40. Until then, my career path included working as a dive instructor, maritime captain, and ski patroller, among other professions. I was attracted to the work of a ranger by a strong desire to be in the outdoors (no desk!), I like the mission-oriented nature of the work along with the opportunity to serve the public. My first ranger position was as a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service where I was assigned to patrol a vast area of pristine and rugged High Sierra backcountry. I found that it was an excellent fit for my skills and background – I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven (maybe I had). After a few years as a seasonal wilderness ranger I was fortunate to get hired in a permanent position with a different agency where I’m currently on a watershed patrol unit.
What does a typical day look like when you are working a long shift as a ranger?
As a ranger in a busy patrol unit, my initial reply to this question would be to say that there is no typical day. My job is a largely a public safety position, I could be responding to a remote search & rescue call just minutes after dealing with an enforcement issue in a busy campground. During fire season one of my primary missions is wildfire suppression. My patrol truck is a well-equipped brushfire engine and my division regularly engages in direct attack on wildfires. I patrol by vehicle, ATV, boat and on foot. Medical & rescue calls can include everything from swiftwater, vertical, drowning recovery, and vehicle accidents.
Yesterday on shift I responded to a fast moving grass fire, a report of a person threatening to kill people in a campground, I assisted medics with a heart attack patient, went on an animal welfare call and then finished my shift with a late night boat search for a fisherman who was overdue on a large reservoir.
It’s a mixed bag and keeps a ranger on his/her toes.
What can we do as outdoor enthusiasts to help protect public lands?
Make use of public lands, get out there and maintain a relationship with the outdoors! I believe that those who spend time in wild places will be more likely to develop an ethic of land stewardship. If there is one book I could recommend to any outdoors person, sportsman or landowner, it would be Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.
I get the opportunity to do quite a bit of public speaking to many different types of audiences and the message of getting outdoors and being physically active is one that I try to massage into people, especially kids.
You seek out adventures all over the world. What’s your most memorable adventure and why?
I’d have to say that one of the most spectacular adventures that I’ve been involved with was a National Geographic scientific & filming expedition into an underwater cave in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula known as Hoyo Negro. While exploring deep inside of the world’s longest underwater cave, divers discovered a massive chamber that contained the skeleton of a 13,000 year old human. These bones, which were dated to the Late Pleistocene, were surrounded by the pristine fossils of extinct Ice Age beasts, including giant ground sloths, saber-tooth cats, and elephant-like gompotheres. Hoyo Negro is a prehistoric time capsule that is unequaled. Our team was hired by National Geographic Television to film and provide diving expertise during removal of the human skeletal remains.
In a very technical and complex 17 day diving operation we recovered the bones and filmed the entire expedition.
To capture beautiful 4K footage we ran nearly 9,000 feet of underwater electrical cable and lit the cave with state-of-the-art cinema lighting. The scientific research and footage we shot was featured in a NOVA/PBS episode called First Face of America. The Hoyo Negro project was very exciting and has special meaning because of it’s contribution to the new understanding of human migration into the Americas. Learn more from National Geographic about this fascinating discovery!
Funniest outdoor experience/mishap?
A caving buddy and I took up the dare to do a route in a particular cave in the nude. Barely 21 years old and being confident, sporting guys we accepted the challenge. It was an underground circuit of about a half mile and included a fair amount of crawling and squeezing. We had done this circuit many times and we had it wired – we thought it would be a piece of cake. At the cave entrance we stripped down and headed underground. The joke was on us: when we returned to the surface and discovered that our caving friends who gave us the challenge were gone, along with our clothes. The hike back to the car wasn’t necessarily the problem, it was the crowd of tourists we had to walk (run) past who were waiting for a tour at a nearby visitors center. Scraped-up, sunburned and giggling like crazy we made it back to the parking area where we found our clothing draped-all over the car and a couple of cold beers in the cooler.
I heard that you’ve climbed with Royal Robbins, is that true?
Yes, I did climb with Royal Robbins on one occasion at a cliff on the Sonora Pass, CA. At the time he was recovering from a serious shoulder injury and he mostly belayed me. It was very cool being roped up with a climbing icon – after all, his book Basic Rockcraft was the first I had read on the topic when I was 15 years old. I first met Royal and his wife Liz in the mid-eighties and I would visit with them and the Robbins family at their cabin on Pinecrest Lake. Liz and Royal’s daughter Tamara and I skied together for years and we are good friends to this day. Royal was a brilliant, thoughtful and intense gentleman who I consider a great influence in my life. Unfortunately he passed away last year, we recently honored him at a wonderful memorial service in Modesto, CA.
Where’s your next adventure?
I’m currently working to put together a caving expedition/television production to a remote high elevation region of the Peruvian Andes. The expedition will have the primary goal to support an exciting archaeological excavation of a possibly forgotten ancient culture.
The perfect s’more? (if you don’t like s’mores, what’s your favorite campfire dessert?)
Dark chocolate, definitely dark chocolate.
Photos © 2018 Greg Francek