By Jake Brooks, Kimberly Lisagor, and Andrew Tilin (with Alex Salkever)
For nearly 40 years, the Aral Sea has topped the list of the most beleaguered bodies of water on the planet. Straddling the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, what was once the world's fourth-largest lake has shrunk to less than half of its original size, sucked dry by decades of intensive Soviet-style irrigation. What remains — parched salt flats and beached trawlers — is only slightly less dismaying than what has disappeared altogether: 80 percent of the area's birds and mammals, a once-vibrant fishing economy, and the health of entire communities now stricken with cancer and typhoid. There are, however, two small grace notes. Last September, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pointed out that the Aral will stop shrinking and stabilize, albeit at less than 20 percent of its original size, by 2015. And early this year, contractors will break ground on part of an $86 million project designed to restore the region's wetlands and improve its drinking water. It's a mildly heartening turning point after a half-century of degradation. "Up to now, it's been compared to a bad nuclear accident," laments Tom Price of the OSCE. "Something along the lines of Chernobyl."
A Race Too ... Pointless?
OK, it's official: The adventure world's fixation on impressive but absurd accomplishments has now achieved the apotheosis of extremism. Last October, Himalayan potato farmer Kazi Sherpa shattered the Mount Everest "speed-ascent record" by pulling off the grueling slog from the 17,600-foot base camp to the 29,028-foot summit in a brisk 20 hours and 24 minutes. But despite besting the existing record by nearly two hours, the 33-year-old climber is far from thrilled. "I wanted to do it much faster," he grumbles, explaining that heavy winds delayed him at the 26,000-foot South Col. Which is why Kazi Sherpa plans a second sprint up the mountain sometime in the next two years, with the intention of topping out in 18 hours or less — a mark that he hopes will stand as unassailable, and one that more sober minds deem pretty irrelevant. "It's certainly a virtuoso display of high-altitude climbing," concedes American alpinist David Breashears. "But there aren't many people lining up to see how much faster it can be done."
Yes, I Do Speak Snow Goose
"Fortunately, they couldn't swim as fast as I could paddle," says veteran adventurer Jon Waterman, referring to the two hungry grizzlies he encountered last summer during stage two of his attempt to complete a solo traverse of the Northwest Passage — a 1,023-mile journey along the Arctic Coast in which he spent weeks on end without seeing another human. ("It's pretty twisted in that respect," he concedes.) But evidently not twisted enough to dissuade the 42-year-old Colorado writer from embarking on the third and final leg of his expedition this month: a 1,100-mile trek from Umingmaktok to Repulse Bay via sea kayak and touring skis. If Waterman pulls it off, he'll become the first American ever to complete the feat — although he admits to being far more anxious about surviving the profound loneliness than about setting records. "You begin talking to birds and seals," he says. "Which, when you're out there all alone, starts to seem perfectly normal."
We Accept Your Apology. The Turtles, Alas, Do Not.
When 222 baby hawksbill turtles poked their heads out of the sand at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park last September, they were intent on doing what chelonian hatchlings do best: bumbling down the beach and into the sea to join their brethren, only a few thousand of whom survive (a statistic that ranks the hawksbill as one of the world's most endangered marine species). Sadly, a number of them never got that far. Seven weeks earlier, a group of earnest volunteers had covered the fragile eggs with wire mesh to shield them from predators — and then failed to remove the protective cage before the hatch, which began a day earlier than anticipated. By the following afternoon, 37 of the newborns had been toasted to death by the Hawaiian sun — a potentially debilitating blunder for Volcanoes's underfunded turtle-protection program. "We all have our screwups," sighs Tim Tunison, the park's resource management chief, who has launched a search for turtle-friendly fencing. "But this is the most lamentable one to date."