Expeditions: What Price Glory?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, June 1997

Expeditions: What Price Glory?

Two old friends earn their spot in the record books — with tragic consequences
By Todd Balf

Ross and Ramsden,
reunited in Massachussetts

Suffering from the effects of food poisoning, a severe infestation of lice, and a week's worth of 115-degree weather while cycling a godforsaken stretch of Baja Peninsula desert, 31-year-old Wayne Ross did what many an adventurer had done before him: He threw a temper tantrum. "I told him I'd had enough," says Ross of the tirade he directed at expedition partner Christopher "Spike" Ramsden. "I threw a gallon of water on the ground, and then I crossed the road to hitch a ride north." Alas, there was just one problem. "I sat there in the sun for half an hour," he explains, a hint of wistfulness in his voice, "but nobody came by."

Ramsden cajoled Ross back, and a few weeks later the two wheeled into Guatemala City, the halfway point in their attempt to set a world record for the swiftest ride across the earth's longest continuous land mass, the classic 15,500-mile route from the top of Alaska to the tip of South America. Ultimately the expedition was successful in establishing a new mark — in March Ramsden reached Cape Horn, shaving seven weeks off the existing record — but not before the pair endured the usual trials and tribulations, as well as serious tragedy.

After five days of being feted by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ross and Ramsden sped out of the capital last October 23, en route for the Pan-American Highway. Then, in the midst an almost 5,000-foot descent, a pickup-truck driver pulled alongside Ramsden to inform him that Ross was down and badly hurt. "There was a whole crowd of people around him," recalls Ramsden, who had been riding a few hundred yards ahead. "I asked, 'Wayne, what is it?' and he said, 'I think I broke my neck.'" Sadly, Ross — who had been drafting a bus in an attempt to catch up with Ramsden and was unable to stop when the driver abruptly slammed his brakes — was correct in his diagnosis. In fact, by the time Ramsden was dipping his front wheel into the Beagle Channel off Ushuaia, Argentina, on day 265, Ross was just returning home from Boston's VA Hospital, having suffered through six weeks of intense physical therapy meant to restore the use of his arms and hands. "Everybody wants Spike and I to break down and cry about the accident," says Ross from behind his implacable facade, voice steeled in a manner appropriate for a former air force lieutenant. "But that's just not us. When you've dealt with as many situations as we did, well, breaking my neck was really just another situation."

"Spike came into my room and asked if I'd be disappointed if he went on with the trip. I told him I'd be disappointed if he didn't."

Such bravado aside, it's certainly true that the two faced long odds from the start. Ramsden, a 32-year-old professional sailor who had competed in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1994, had no long-distance cycling experience when he made the decision to take on the expedition. "The first time I ever rode with panniers," he says, "was when we set out from Prudhoe Bay." Nonetheless, convinced that the 311-day record — set by two Americans and two Canadians in 1987 — was vulnerable, the solid, five-foot-three Massachusetts native became a man possessed, devoting a year to raising the necessary $30,000, riding 200 miles a week, and working out an agreement to promote the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation via regular updates to its Web site. It was behavior that friends say plays directly to type. "Spike's definitely a weird guy," says Rob Brown, a communications professor at Massachusetts's Salem State College who helped promote the expedition. "But he's also the most determined person I've ever met."

After his original partner dropped out a month before the trip, Ramsden called on Ross, an old high school wrestling buddy who'd already logged 80,000 miles of bike touring in North America, Europe, and Australia. Setting out from Prudhoe Bay last June, the pair began the journey by grinding along the rough, steeply graded Dalton Highway for its 500-mile run to Fairbanks. "Across the Brooks Range I'd walk my bike and go about three miles an hour," recalls the 5-foot-11 Ross, a square-jawed sort who even in his wheelchair conveys an imposing presence. "Spike would ride and only go two." Carrying pannier loads of 100 pounds each, they eventually dropped into the Yukon, where they were welcomed by 1,400 miles of stiff headwinds and rain on 25 of the next 29 days. Finally, after they reached Seattle at the end of July, the weather brightened and the terrain leveled. Now helped along by a steady wind at their backs, the two even allowed themselves a few leisurely detours, including a spin over to Hearst Castle and an unintentional shortcut through the set of a Baywatch episode. "I stopped to take a photo of this classic California girl," Ross says. "It wasn't until she was in my viewfinder that I realized it was Pamela Anderson."

But such, well, boyish diversions were few and far between. In addition to getting blown off his bike by winds from an approaching hurricane outside Acapulco, Ramsden had to make his way through rebel-controlled areas of Colombia and was robbed at knifepoint by bandits in northern Peru. "They pulled me off my bike, tied my hands behind my back, and rolled me down a hill," says Ramsden. "They took my wallet, my tent, a bike pump, my rain jacket, even my commemorative watch from the Whitbread. All they left was the bike and panniers." Then, of course, there was Guatemala. "A day after my surgery," says Ross in a steady monotone, "Spike came into my room and asked if I'd be disappointed if he went on with the trip. I told him I'd be disappointed if he didn't."

Yet despite the pall that such an accident inevitably casts on an expedition, Ross and Ramsden volunteer little with regard to the emotional aspects, instead awkwardly steering all dialogue toward the achievement itself, as if the tragedy had never happened. "Sure, somebody could do it faster," says Ross, whose ambitious short-term plans include earning an MBA, relearning to scuba dive, and swimming the backstroke at the National Wheelchair Veteran Games next month in San Diego. "But can they do it without a support vehicle? People don't realize what you must contend with on an unsupported trip like ours: Mechanical delays, border problems, weather disasters, medical stuff. We lost five days alone because of my accident."

Photograph by John Huet

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