Families stretch their physical limits on multisport vacations

The scarily steep expanse of granite looms, but fearless Patrick Kudej, 13, scampers up nearly 200 feet and then rappels backward off a cliff, with the help of a harness, careful rope support and watchful instructor. So do his sister and three young cousins.

Their father, computer graphics artist Rob Kudej, 46, amazes himself by doing the Spider-Man-like ascent and cliff-drop, though he, too, has no previous rock-climbing experience.

The kids' mother, a lawyer, is more tentative, but she gamely gets through. "I'm glad I'm trying it," Betsy Conway, 47, says. "But I really get a charge out of watching the kids."

The family of four from Norwich, Conn., have joined Betsy's sister and her clan on a six-day Grand Teton-Yellowstone multisport tour, a best-selling outing from The World Outdoors. It's one of a growing number of multi-adventure trips catering to today's appetite for easy-to-organize getaways providing varied physical challenges. Outfitters arrange guides, lodging, transportation, equipment, instruction and meals.

Parents like multisport because kids "get bored" doing one thing, says The World Outdoors president Bill Marriner, an energetic 55-year-old who is guiding this trip with guest services director Sherry Malanify, 47. Seasoned travelers no longer are content to sit in tour buses, he says. They like stretching boundaries and new experiences.

This August tour in the jagged, snow-capped Teton mountain range and geyser-dotted Yellowstone National Park includes rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking and whitewater rafting — with kayaking and horseback riding as pay-extra options.

The two families assemble in Jackson, Wyo., the night before the tour's start. Bill and Sherry meet the four adults and five kids in a white GMC van, with bins of energy-boosting granola mixed with nuts and M&Ms under the seats and a rack of bikes on top.

They give an orientation with the admonition that if you see a bear, don't make eye contact and don't run. If attacked, get on the ground in a fetal position. "We've never had a problem," Sherry says soothingly. Still, Bill totes a can of hot-pepper bear spray.

The first sport — off-road biking — rolls out in Bridger-Teton National Forest. After a crash tutorial in basics on sturdy bikes with whimsical names like "Vote for Pedro" and "Tina the Llama," the helmeted crew zooms over roots and rocks, the five kids in the lead and whooping. Tanned instructor Carolyn Stwertka, hired for the day by The World Outdoors, encourages the timid. A couple of riders fall, resulting in minor cuts and bruised egos.

Midway through the 14-mile ride, Bill stops at a river to lead the kids in "Colorado push-ups" — putting your head underwater and kissing a rock — as riders from a dude ranch splash past.

Patrick Kudej, lanky and impish, is in heaven. "I like extreme exercise," he says, hopping back on Vote for Pedro and executing a wheelie.

After a roadside spread of chicken salad, fruit, yogurt and cookies, bikers do more miles on the road, then rest in the van during a two-hour drive to Yellowstone National Park. The kids are in the back, listening to iPods, giggling and snapping photos of one another and roadside attractions, including the towering Tetons.

At 5 p.m., the van pulls up to the century-old Old Faithful Inn, a sprawling log structure almost in spitting distance of Yellowstone's most famous geyser. After a dinner that includes bison and huckleberry ice cream, the multisporters walk around the sulfurous geysers, ending among the crowd watching impressive spurts from Old Faithful. By nightfall, muscles aching, most are ready to turn in.

Day 2 dawns with a forest fire burning in the distance — a common occurrence, but alarming to city slickers. Another Western vista comes into view, too, as the van revs up: huge, woolly bison, snorting and grunting as they cross the road, seemingly oblivious to the shutter-clicking and traffic jams they're causing.

Later, Bill and Sherry lead a hike through alpine-like meadows toward the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, smaller than the one in Arizona but impressive. "Black-bear scat" (droppings), Bill announces as he points to the ground. Everyone nervously gathers. He picks up a brown piece and takes a bite. "Ewwww," the group choruses.

Works every time, he says with a chuckle. It's a planted chocolate power bar.

Later it's time to be "sagebrushers," in old-time Yellowstone lingo. That means campers, and this is the part that Betsy and sister Meg Walker have been dreading. They customized the trip — usually three nights under the stars — to excise one campground night in favor of an extra evening at a resort. Lots of moms "don't really want to camp, but they want to give their kids the experience," Bill says.

The experience — learning to pitch a tent, washing up at a cold-water sink in a campground restroom, sitting around a fire eating burgers and s'mores and playing games — delights the kids. Their laughter punctuates the after-bedtime silence. Some adults like sleeping on the ground; others doze fitfully and can't wait for a hotel.

But first is another hiking day — this one to 10,000-foot Avalanche Peak. A lung-searing 21/2-mile trek to the narrow-ridged summit in winds strong enough to blow over a young child rewards multisporters with 360-degree views.

Anna Kudej, 14, pulls out her phone. A friend texted, asking, " 'How is the West?,' " she reports. "I think I'll text her back when I'm on top."

At the summit, all stop for photo ops, with all included. "We all are family on this trip," Rob says. Strenuous exercise and long van rides are bonding. (Note: Such togetherness trips are not for those who value quiet, independence and personal space.)

On the way down, kids and adults celebrate by forming a human toboggan on a big patch of snow. "Does this count as another sport?" Rob says.

Back at the van, the kids are asked if they're enjoying the trip. "Yeahhhhh!" they chorus.

"They don't want to have to think (about daily plans)," Bill says of his clients. "They just want to be on vacation and have a good time."

Times get better for the moms on Day 4 — a free day during which they horseback ride with some of the kids and check in early at the Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa, with pool and huge jetted hot tub. Others hike again or kayak on Jenny Lake.

"I enjoyed the camping. Every part but sleeping. I counted the minutes until we got to the hotel," auburn-haired Meg says.

That night's dinner at the Mangy Moose saloon in Teton Village is raucous, and everyone downs generous portions of pasta, steak and buffalo meat loaf. The next morning, the kids take over the van's sound system. Kevin Walker, 14, hands up an iPod of his favorite tunes, which instead of the adult-dreaded rap turn out to be Pink Floyd and heavy metal.

Day 5 is much-awaited rock climbing, with kids in one group, adults in another. Led by a cool-dude instructor, the kids get lessons in self-control.

"I can't wait till we get higher," Patrick says. As he goes up fast, instructor Mark Givens admonishes: "It's not a race. Life is sweet."

Dad Rob finishes in style and says, "Had I known (how high they would climb), I never would have gone."

You'd think adventure couldn't get more super-charged, but it does on the last day.

Whitewater is a thrill (Rob falls out on a big rapid and is dramatically pulled back into the raft). The trip's climax was billed as a gentle bike ride on a road in Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park. Suddenly, grazing bison turn into charging beasts, racing across the road near the cyclists.

Sherry moves the van into a defensive position, shielding her charges. The herd passes, leaving the relieved multisporters in their dust. Says Meg Walker, "I've had enough stimulation to last a lifetime."

But her nephew Patrick has the last word. "That was cool!"

E-mail kyancey@usatoday.com