Because It's Still There

A new wave of adventurers makes the case that the world has much left to offer

Jan 9, 2001
Outside Magazine

Boldly going: approching Guna La, a peak in West Tibet's remote Gurla Mandhata Range, 1997

Fish Girl: Tanya Streeter works out near her home in Austin, June 2001

Born Again: the New Mexico Skydrome as it appeared when first constructed in Manitoba, Canada

Wave Man: Moriarity rides Mavs, December 2000

"I know wonderfully little about where we're going," says celebrated British mountaineer Sir Christian Bonington of the expedition he will lead this September to an obscure mountain range in the Ladakh region of northeast India. "But that's the beauty of it. Our only information comes from a few distant photographs and a satellite map. It's the real unknown."

Real unknown? Does such a thing still exist? Sticklers might argue that any place that's been mapped and photographed can in no sense be called terra incognita. Nevertheless, Bonington's expedition, whose ranks also include British climber Jim Lowther and Boston-based Mark Richey, does seem to be attempting something with more, well, soul than the usual spring cattle drive up Mount Everest's South Col or the umpteenth attempt to complete the Seven Summits. Sixty-seven-year-old Bonington and his team will seek out adventure in a nearly pristine location and bring back new information about the area's people, places, and wildlife—renowned historian Daniel Boorstin's notion of "feedback," that quality separating true exploration from ordinary adventure. "You have to be clever to find the unknown," says Bonington, author of ten mountaineering books and the leader in 1975 of the first successful assault on Everest's southwest face. "But it's there."

Of course, untrampled ground wasn't always so difficult to come by. Barely 150 years ago, one could discover new lands in this country simply by strapping on a pair of sturdy boots and walking toward the sunset. But technology has since shrunk the world to the point where even the Himalayas are just a couple dozen hours and minibottles of scotch from any major city in America. It seemed exploration had reached its zenith in May 1953, when Hillary and Norgay topped out on Everest. And more than a few goal-obsessed climbers considered hanging up their spikes in 1986, when Reinhold Messner climbed Lhotse, the last of the world's fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, without supplemental oxygen.

So what remains? Well, as it turns out, a heck of a lot.

While untold numbers of rivers remain to be run and countless caves await the tools of scientists, the high mountains offer perhaps the best example of the earth's enormous untapped potential. Of the 448 peaks above 7,000 meters, a full 146 have never been summited. Countless routes in the Himalayas still remain to be climbed, a fact predicted by Sir Edmund Hillary as he stood on top of the world. "I remember looking out over the Himalayas and not thinking that I'd closed the door on exploration but rather just the opposite," says Hillary, now 82. "I remember thinking, 'God, the possibilities are endless—this range will never be fully explored.' It looks like I was right."

Indeed he was. A growing number of climbers are pursuing geographic objectives that are less apt to make headlines but more likely to be inwardly satisfying. Canadian adventurer Will Gadd, who prefers to employ several modes of travel—say, hang gliding and kayaking—to explore virgin territory, represents the new breed of climbers who rely on their imaginations as much as their technical skills. "Every generation says that there is nothing left to explore, that all future explorers might as well just sit on their ass and read about the great climbs of yore," says Gadd. "But the adventure to-do list on my computer has literally a thousand places I'd like to go—places that nobody I've known has ever seen."

British mountaineer Simon Yates, who earlier this year climbed an unnamed peak in Chile's Cordillera Darwin, has his own secret roster of must-do trips, crafted through intensive research, word of mouth, and frequent recon. "Even in the Alps you can find gaps between established routes where exploratory mountaineering is possible," says Yates. He then rattles off a dozen regions bristling with unclimbed peaks: Antarctica, Greenland, the Tien Shan range in central Asia, and crags all across Africa. "I've never understood why so many climbers gravitate toward ugly-piles-of-shit mountains," says Utah-based climber Greg Child. "I could walk into Pakistan's Karakoram range tomorrow and find hundreds of beautiful spires and walls chock-full of beautiful virgin routes."

Yet not all of the new breed of alpinists are greeted with approbation by purists. Take peak bagging—the act of compiling lists of somehow related mountains, and then ticking them off one by one, as with the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. Proponents, like American Everest deity Ed Viesturs and Canadian photographer, writer, and climber Pat Morrow, argue that such lists actually promote adventurousness. "The very existence of lists is enough to generate or amplify people's interest in going to places they ordinarily wouldn't go," writes Morrow in the recent book Voices from the Summit. But detractors argue that lists are nothing more than contrived concatenations that overshadow the individual mountains. "Is there any reason to be the eighth person to climb all the 8,000ers?" asks Yates, 38. "Or to be the 117th person to climb the Seven Summits? It's ridiculous."

In a strange way, all these competing opinions about the meaning of exploration are probably a good sign that humans have nowhere near exhausted the earth's capacity to surprise us with new experiences. The growing ranks of climbers in search of virgin territory—spurred by grants such as W. L. Gore's Shipton/Tilman program and the Polartec Performance Challenge—should reassure anybody who doubts that explorers are as plucky as they used to be. As for Bonington and his team, any day now they should be beaming field reports back to civilization via the Web. And while the descriptions of towering rock faces, high-altitude critters, and new Indian friends probably won't turn the world upside down, only a fool would dismiss their feedback. "Let the peak baggers jostle among themselves on the already-climbed mountains," says Bonington. "I've learned that true exploratory climbing is all about letting go of your ego, something that's hard for most climbers to do. But if you can forget about money and fame and follow your heart, you just might find the unknown."

WHAT'S LEFT: Dozens of unclimbed faces and peaks in the Transantarctic Mountains.
WHY: Weather is one thing. Expense is another. Passage to Adventure Network International's Patriot Hills Base from Punta Arenas, Chile, runs $25,000 per person. To get from there on down to the alps, tack on another quarter-million for fuel alone. "For that money, I could do my kind of trips elsewhere for 15 years," says Montana-based mountaineer Jack Tackle.

WHAT'S LEFT: Multiple unclimbed routes in the Hindu Kush, a glacier-capped range straddling the border with Pakistan and rising on the Afghan side to 24,581 feet at Mount Nowshak.
WHY: The Taliban has not yet embraced ecotourism. Besides intense fighting between rebel factions and the odd U.S. missile attack, the terrain hides millions of land mines. "There is really good climbing," says alpinist Mark Synnott. "But you have to be really careful about being an American."
WHAT'S LEFT: Glacial approaches to spectacular 4,000-foot rock walls and 7,000-foot unclimbed peaks on Greenland's southeast coast.
WHY: Bushwhacking, river crossings, and thick clouds of mosquitoes and blackflies. "It's just amazing that the ancient Norse were able to survive there—even the Inuit for that matter," says climber Mark Richey, a member of Chris Bonington's recent expedition into the area. "Without a head net, you would go insane."

Age: 28.

How Italian freediving superstar Umberto Pelizzari evaluates Streeter's potential: "She's the strongest woman freediver in the world."

World-record depth, in feet, she reached earlier this year on the island of Guadeloupe while constant-ballast freediving, swimming into the abyss, and returning to the surface on a single breath of air: 230.

Deepest point, in feet, she's reached by plunging on a weighted sled and rocketing back up via an inflated airbag: 370.

Water pressure at that depth, in PSI: 180.

Pressure change, in PSI, that can potentially rupture an eardrum: nine.

How she fights her instinct to breathe: "I just don't accept it as something that's going to stop me."

Longest time she has held her breath, while training in a pool: six minutes, eight seconds.

Longest time, in minutes, you can probably hold yours: one.

Depth, in feet, she hopes to reach in September to shatter the women's world record in no-limits (sled and airbag) freediving: 450.

Why former world-record holder Frederic Buyle believes Streeter will surpass men's records: "She's already beaten one of mine."

Place of birth: Grand Cayman Island.

Why Streeter moved in May 2000 to her current home in Austin, Texas: job offer at a now-defunct dotcom.

How she plans to pursue freediving while living 155 miles from the ocean: "I've got some geography to work out."

Gear: Electrify your look with Nike's new ACG Air Shastas. Fat treads provide excellent stability for sidestepping down a slope, while a water-resistant Velcro weather shroud makes this one tough trail runner. Failing that, at least a pair of Shastas will make a statement in the bar of your local W Hotel. $65; 800-344-6453;

CD-ROM: The Colorado's Fourteeners Companion Map Package will help you plot your conquests of Harvard, Challenger Point, and the state's 53 other peaks over 14,000 feet. The bundle includes 31 full-color 8x12 topo maps, and the CD-ROM covering the same ground will allow you to zoom in on that sporty Class III scramble. $40;

Gear: The surf-accessory mavens at Rip Curl are celebrating ten years of Automatic Tide System watches with the limited-edition Orbit ATS Tidemaster, a corrosion-proof stainless-steel timepiece that's water-resistant down to 660 feet. Eleven-jewel Swiss-made innards keep track of moon phase, tide height, and spring and neap tides—plus it keeps perfect time, so you won't miss the first batch of fish tacos on Huntington Beach. $350;

When Kathy Volski climbed out of a van in the hills above Albuquerque with a dozen other cycling-track directors for an advance peek at the site of the New Mexico Skydrome earlier this year, she realized she could be witnessing the rebirth of one of the nation's lesser-known bike sports. "We took one look," recalls Volski, the manager of Houston's Alkek Velodrome, "and said, 'World record.'"

She wasn't just being polite. Like the 20 other velodromes around the country, the Skydrome will be a banked oval track about the size of an ice-hockey rink, upon which as many as 30 racers will simultaneously pedal stripped-down custom bikes as fast as 40 mph, sans brakes. But unlike other tracks, the Skydrome—originally built for the 1999 Pan American Games in Manitoba, Canada, and being reassembled this month in the suburb of Rio Rancho—will enjoy a choice location: At an altitude of about 5,500 feet, Rio Rancho's air is thin (which spells lower wind resistance), and the sun shines over mostly smog-free skies more than 320 days a year, allowing for four-season training. Further, the Skydrome, tucked in a natural bowl, will be nicely sheltered from the wind. "A five-mph headwind can slow you down a tenth of a second, which is the difference between a national or world record," says Matt Martinez, race director at San Jose, California's Hellyer Velodrome.
Skydrome director Johnathan Powell, 38, a veteran road racer, believes all of the above factors will lead to unprecedented speeds on his track once it's up and running come June 2002. And it's high time. Elite cyclists have set only a single world record in the past decade at the 20 other U.S. velodromes, where athletes in many cases cope with harsh winter weather. Meanwhile, thinner air at high-altitude tracks in Mexico City and in Colombia has fueled numerous world records, such as Canadian Curt Harnett's unsurpassed 9.865-second 200-meter sprint at the Bogota velodrome in 1995. To Powell, it's time to bring the trophies home. "Racers like Lance Armstrong will come to attempt to break world records," he says, defending a sport that hasn't pierced the popular consciousness since its heyday back in the early 1900s. "This is the first step toward filling in the blanks of cycling in the U.S."

It's UNFORTUNATE that the 1995 surf-magazine cover shot by which many will remember Jay Moriarity—wiping out from atop a 20-footer at Maverick's, the legendary break 50 miles north of his hometown of Santa Cruz, California—will serve as a visual epitaph for one of the world's most adept big-wave riders. Moriarity, a gregarious waterman who helped pioneer the high-stakes sport of using jet-ski tow-ins to catch immense West Coast faces, perished while diving on June 15 in the Maldives.

Moriarity had traveled to the Maldives to train and participate in a photo shoot with wetsuit maker O'Neill, one of his sponsors. He had been breath-hold diving along a tethered dive line off the Lohifushi Island resort. After noticing he was missing, colleagues organized a search party, and they discovered his body that evening, 50 feet down on the ocean floor. According to O'Neill sponsorship manager Bernhard Ritzer, divers found the 22-year-old in a sitting position, still holding the line.

Back in Santa Cruz, friends knew Moriarity as an easygoing presence in the high-stakes world of big-wave surfing. "It was never about telling people he got the biggest wave," recalled tow-in partner Jeff Clark. "It was always about pure enjoyment. Jay was a surfer with no ego. Whether he was helping somebody who had never been on a surfboard or was surfing with the best in the world, he never had a bad word to say. He was one in a billion."

Trust the U.S. military to know a thing or two about camping—it's what army guys do when they're not shooting at people. While the Pentagon has historically funded the development of backcountry staples such as freeze-dried food, in the past year or so, the Arlington, Virginia-based Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been backing the following out-there outdoor gadgets.
The weapon: The Paratrooper Tactical Mountain Bike
The 29-pound aluminum frame folds to just over two by three feet. Montague Corporation ($650; 800-736-5348;

Warrior use: Montague says paratroopers with the Special Reaction Team at Marine Corps Base Quantico, 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., have been riding 'em on patrol at the base since last fall.

Weekend-warrior use: You are an army of one. Deploy yourself to Fruita.

Survey says. . . Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's coach: "Think about what the Walkman did for music."

The weapon: MIOX Disinfection Pen
The four-ounce Magic Marker look-alike cleans up a gallon of agua fresca in 15 minutes through electrolysis. Due in early 2002 from MIOX Corporation ($100; 800-646-9426;

Warrior use: Battlefield rehydration. MIOX claims the jarheads at Quantico have used it for a year.

Weekend-warrior use: Less pumping on the purifier—more pumping up the hill.

Survey says. . . Colorado Mountain School guide Dan Gambino is stoked: "It's almost like getting a kickback from your tax dollars."

The weapon: Nanoparticle-Based Solar Cell
An ultralight solar generator sewn right into your tent wall or backpack flap. Sorry, you won't see it in stores until 2004 or 2005.

Warrior use: Infantry at the Natick Soldier Center—a kind of high-tech war lab in Natick, Massachusetts—will be charging Palm handhelds and two-way radios with prototypes over the next few years.

Weekend-warrior use: A pack that powers a small electric stove. A tent that recharges a lantern. Fresh-blended juices for everybody!

Survey says. . . "On a beautiful day, solar's great," says Jeff Martin, operations manager for Rainier Mountaineering. "But if Mother Nature's not cooperating, I wouldn't stake my dinner on it."

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