Going to Extremes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

Going to Extremes
By Larry Burke

Most sporting pursuits have a maximum mecca, a magnetic place somewhere on the globe boasting the kinds of challenging terrain or spectacular conditions that hard-core devotees can't resist. For boardsailing, it's Maui. For scuba diving, Belau. For rock climbing, Yosemite. And for extreme alpinism? Chamonix, France, has long reigned as the capital of this esoteric amalgam of on-the-edge skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, and other perilous permutations of mountain sport. Today, however, the mysto spot seems to have shifted 70 miles southwest to a farming village, lofted in the isolated larch forests of the French Alps, known as La Grave.

When executive editor Michael Paterniti traveled to La Grave last spring, he found an austere attic of the world, prone to avalanches and the gnarliest of storms, where the boulder-studded slopes are so steep that one false move can cost a skier his life. And yet in La Grave's dark couloirs and glaciers Paterniti glimpsed a long-lost spirit of improvisational innocence that infused alpine sports back when all the trails were ungroomed and athletes honed their skills in happy obscurity. La Grave is a kind of antiresort, with no crowds, no ski patrol, and no rules to muck up the raw experience of leaving one's own personal filigree on the mountain. "The La Grave bums are inheritors of a dissident tradition that's run through the hobos, the Beats, the Merry Pranksters, and the Lonely Planet backpackers," notes Paterniti. "They're young, disaffected middle-classers who've come searching for an ultimate expression of freedom. In their case, freedom takes the form of an exhilarating and at times macabre dance down a 60-degree slope."

Extreme skiers aren't the only kamikazes dive-bombing down the slopes of Europe, of course. Consider the supernal, steel-nerved sport of ski jumping, which has traditionally been so thoroughly dominated by guys named Dieter, Lars, and Sven that American teams have consistently been relegated to the status of Jamaican bobsledders. But that may soon change. Recently writer Sara Corbett checked in on the U.S. Ski Jumping Team, a crew of four teenage flyboys who hope not only to show their stuff in the 1998 Winter Olympics, but ultimately to establish American air superiority. Observing this odd tribe of pubescent string beans training on the jumps built for the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, New York, Corbett finds herself contemplating what it means to hurl oneself toward oblivion from the lip of a 120-meter ramp. "It's a leap of faith so literal," writes Corbett, "that it seems no wonder the sport is reserved for children flush with a sense of immortality."

Elsewhere in this issue: if you're thinking of taking a leap of your own, see our annual Trip-Finder, a comprehensive guide to 180 far-flung excursions offered by more than 100 outfitters on every continent, from rafting in the Andes to bushwalking in Zambia. This year's Trip-Finder was expertly pulled together by senior editor Leslie Weeden and former managing editor Kathy Martin. To kick it off, seasoned peripatetic David Noland takes a hard look at the nuts-and-bolts economics of the adventure travel business to help you make informed decisions before you break out the checkbook.

Then, Trip Gabriel meets with celebrated adventure filmmaker Mike Hoover, the sole survivor of a 1994 heli-skiing crash that killed four people, including his wife and partner, Beverly Johnson, and Walt Disney president Frank G. Wells. Gabriel finds Hoover still wrestling with the accident, which shattered his body, but bravely taking his place again among the living.

Finally, John Tayman explores the outrageously pumped-up world of Mark Henry, a high-spirited, 410-pound weight lifter who may be the strongest man the world has ever known. This latter-day Samson hopes to seal his reputation in the clean-and-jerk competition at this summer's Olympic Games, hoisting weights that are extremely...well, extreme.

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