Gunning for the Grails

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

Gunning for the Grails

From the snow-shrouded Karakorams to our own backyard, eight of the glory seekers' loftiest goals
By Bill Donahue

The golden age of exploration, of romantic and leech-filled forays into terra incognita, may be drawing to a close. Even so, there remain valid excursions that test the limits of human resolve (not to mention those of certain pieces of high-tech gear). And while perhaps adding little to our species' font of accumulated wisdom, such feats remain notable achievements. A look at some of the grandest of these remaining firsts.

Rafting: The Indus

"It was the hardest river I've ever run, harder than the Yangtze and harder than the Blue Nile," says veteran guide Jim Slade of his 1979 journey, an exploratory foray for adventure-travel pioneer Sobek, down sections of the narrow, thundering Indus River in northern Pakistan. Slade's party endured two near-fatal capsizes and a dozen long portages. And in their three-week, 200-mile journey, Slade and his cohorts, like all others before them and since, didn't even try the river's most difficult stretch: a precarious 12 miles of the Rhondu Gorges, which run southwest to the confluence with the Gilgit River.

The section begins with what Slade calls "a sure-death, 60-foot-high waterfall." After that, the Indus plummets 40 to 50 feet per mile (the Colorado, in comparison, averages about ten). Boulders are everywhere, spit down from nearby mountains. And it's a stretch that's impossible to portage — sheer canyon walls loom hundreds of feet over the river. Which means that the first team to complete the Indus will have to do it the hard way — a thought that gives most who've seen the Gorges the shivers. "We didn't even entertain the idea," concedes New Zealander Cam McLeay, a member of an international team that rafted part of the Indus in 1990. "Those Gorges, they gave us, you know, a bit of a fright."

Spelunking: Cheve Cave

Two hundred miles southeast of Mexico City, Cheve Cave entices with its promise and frustrates with its stark reality. Since it was discovered in 1986, Cheve explorers have been pushing to break the world's depth record of 5,255 feet, set eight years ago in France's Jean-Bernard Cave. But for the last five years they've been stymied at the 4,546-foot mark by a seemingly impenetrable "breakdown wall" — basically a pile of rubble created by the cave collapsing in on itself — that intersects Cheve roughly halfway between its mountaintop entrance and its suspected exit in a valley 8,284 feet below.

"We spend 12 hours a day moving these huge boulders, staying down a week at a stretch," says Proyecto Cheve coleader Nancy Pistole. "So far we've made four trips into the breakdown, to no avail." Still, the cavers working Cheve continue to hold out hope. Pistole's group is now searching for new entrances in an effort to bypass the roadblock. Meanwhile Bill Stone, leader of a team that's spent 22 years probing the nearby Huautla cave system, dreams that eventually Cheve may reveal a link to his musty playground, which would make the combined system the deepest on record. "Huautla has underwater tunnels pointing toward Cheve," says Stone, "and who knows, maybe..."

Mountaineering: The North Ridge of Latok I

Jeff Lowe describes his 23,420-foot-high nemesis in utterly simple terms. "The hardest part," he says, "begins at the bottom and ends at the top." Indeed, the North Ridge route on Pakistan's Latok I is marked by an unrelenting wall that juts 8,000 feet skyward from the Choktoi Glacier. Precipitous, narrow, and always icy, it combines the technical challenges of wall climbing — managing 60-plus-pounds of gear while dangling from ropes, sleeping on small ledges hacked into the ice — with the expeditionary demands of an unusually long ascent at high altitude. And the weather, per usual in the Karakoram Range, is downright abominable. In 1978, Lowe's party was stalled for a week by blizzards and then shut down just 500 feet from the top. Likewise, on her six-week trip in 1993, top American climber Kitty Calhoun endured three weeks of unrelenting snow. In all, six teams have tried the North Ridge, Lowe's thus far the most successful. Americans Mark Richey and John Bouchard plan to give it a shot this month, and are trying their best to be optimistic. "We hope to progress steadily and do it in less than a week," says Richey. "But I'll be honest: Climbing something this technical, at such high altitude, at a fast enough pace to make it, is absolutely horrifying."

Ballooning: Around the World

As Chris Dunkley sees it, the sky is a cruelly chaotic place. "People talk about the jet stream as the wind that can push you around the globe," says Dunkley, editor of Britain's Balloons & Airships magazine. "But really there isn't any continuous 'stream' at all. There's just all these branches and channels of air shooting around, and balloons are at the mercy of these winds."

Though ballooning fanatics have been racing to notch the world's first round-the-world ever since Per Lindstrand flew over the Pacific in 1991, their attempts have brought mixed results. Last year, for instance, Virgin tycoon Richard Branson flew a planeload of journalists to Morocco to watch his magnificent silver balloon lift off — and then plummeted to the ground just 20 hours later. Thus far the most impressive effort has come from Chicago securities trader Steve Fossett, who in January made it from St. Louis to India before running out of fuel. Now, in a race with Branson and at least two others, he's preparing for another try this winter. He's upped his number of fuel tanks from 12 to 17. And he's also planning to spend two months sleeping in a pressurized bubble to acclimatize his system to the demands of flying for more than two weeks at 24,000 feet in a claustrophobic 24-square-foot capsule, battling 150-mile-per-hour winds and the occasional lightning storm, as he attempts to take the world's most unpredictable aircraft on a journey over four continents, three oceans, and assorted hostile nations. "But even with all his preparation," Dunkley says, "he could take off and just get blown straight down into Mexico. It's really just luck of the draw."

Swimming: Sunda Strait

Matthew Webb swam across the English Channel in 1875. Lynne Cox did the Red Sea's shark-infested Gulf of Aqaba in 1994. And Susie Maroney made it from Cuba to Florida just four months ago. Meaning that the sport of open-water swimming has very few great firsts left. Still, there's at least one crossing that seems to loom larger than the rest, both for its dramatic setting in the shadow of an active volcano and the challenge of its unusually warm waters. And the only man who's tried says that completing it will be a Herculean task indeed.

"I felt like I was in a washing machine," says Californian David Yudovin, recounting his failed April attempt at the 16-mile strait, which lies between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra and passes the volcanic isle of Krakatau. As Yudovin — whose rësumë includes a first crossing of the 18-mile Santa Barbara Channel — chopped along in heavy seas, the water was a tepid, strength-sapping 86 degrees, currents dragged him every which way, and soda cans and potato-chip bags pelted him from atop the whitecaps. In the end he made it barely halfway, quitting after being pulled six miles in the wrong direction. "It was so much harder than anything else I've ever tried," Yudovin says, vowing to take another shot soon. "I still have nightmares about that last attempt. You know, I'm swimming up walls, through tunnels, over barbed wire — and I never do get where I'm trying to go."

Exploration: Challenger Deep

Ask legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle what it's like in Challenger Deep, a chasm 36,198 feet below the surface of the Pacific in the Mariana Trench, and she'll tell you that there are "golden luminescent fish and eerie blue-green light — sometimes so bright that you could read by it." She is, of course, guessing. After all, only two humans have ever visited the sea's deepest trench — and then only briefly. American naval officer Don Walsh and Frenchman Jacques Piccard dropped into it in 1960, in a weighted steel sphere, and spent 20 minutes there, making astute observations such as, "A shrimp swam peacefully in front of us."

Earle, Walsh, and colleague Graham Hawkes have spent the last 13 years developing Deep Flight II, a 14-foot winged submarine that will allow them to troll the trench for up to four hours. Though this means that the vessel will have to withstand the 16,000 psi of hull pressure exerted at such extreme depths, twice as far as the reach of the average military submarine, marine experts call it a viable concept and anxiously await its completion, which Earle hopes will be sometime in the year 2000. "It's a little frightening to go somewhere so remote and mysterious, but obviously that's also part of the allure," Earle says. "I can't wait to get to it."

Skiing: Mount Everest

On May 24, 1996, Italian Hans Kammerlander summited the world's tallest mountain and then, ludicrous as it may seem, attempted to become the first person ever to successfully descend its steep, cragged slopes on skis from the top. Kammerlander's swooping GS turns were, according to Rick Halling, a spokesman for sponsor Atomic Ski, "fast and aggressive. He even got air." Unfortunately, he couldn't fly over gaping bare patches in the snow cover and thus spent hours toting his skis on his back. Which means that expedition glissading's most coveted descent remains to be completed.

The peak has taunted skiers since 1975, when a stark film called The Man Who Skied Down Everest depicted a hapless Yuichiro Miura snowplowing the mountain's South Col route. Miura coasts for a few seconds and then tries to stop — only to tumble for a torturous minute. At least five skiers, including top French extremist Pierre Tardivel, have tried Everest since Miura, who walked away bruised but otherwise unscathed; none, however, has come closer than Kammerlander.

As you might imagine, Everest's mind-numbing altitude is the biggest problem, but its drastic slopes also aproach the upper limits of what's considered skiable terrain. One couloir on the North Face drops 2,500 feet at a frightening 55-degree pitch. This month, 29-year-old snowboarder Stephen Koch aims to ride down it in his quest to become the first person to shred the Seven Summits. Meanwhile, speed-skier Craig Calonica, 44, is planning to take a crack at the relatively gentle North Ridge. "Skiing Everest is a deadly serious proposition," Calonica says. "And I do mean deadly. But someone's going to do it eventually, and I see no reason why that someone shouldn't be me."

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