Blazes of Glory

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

Blazes of Glory
By Larry Burke

Smokejumpers are a rare breed of professionals, experiencing daily trials and tribulations--not to mention a proximity to nature's primeval forces--that would make most of us blanch. Every summer, armed with little more than parachutes and Pulaskis, these remarkable firefighters drop onto the infernos raging across the American outback. Last summer, in the midst of one of the West's fiercest burning seasons in a century, executive editor Michael Paterniti and photographer Raymond Meeks traveled to McCall, Idaho, the command center for a patchwork of fires that were then engulfing a quarter of a million acres in the surrounding Payette National Forest. In an elegant portrait, Paterniti and Meeks capture the quirks and dramas of an elite corps that finds itself on the front lines of an extraordinarily expensive--and often environmentally dubious--national fire policy. "Smokejumpers are conflicted heroes of a sort," says Paterniti about his story, "Torched." "They manage to combine two of humankind's atavistic desires--to fly and to play with fire. On the other hand, there's a built-in futility to their job, because they realize that fire is essential to the health of the forest and that many of these blazes should simply be left to burn." And yet, once the last fires have flickered out in the fall, the smokejumpers instinctively fix their gazes on the next summer, when the whole Promethean ritual can unfold anew.

There are those who fight fire, and there are those who court it. Certainly that has been the case with the thousands of young Western tourists who lately have been drawn to Cambodia despite the Southeast Asian kingdom's reputation as the twentieth-century equivalent of Dante's ninth circle. Now that the smoke of civil war has begun to clear, Western backpackers have been venturing to Cambodia to experience its phantasmal ruins, chalk-white beaches, legal marijuana, and scandalously cheap living. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, however, continues to keep the country on edge, and over the past year and a half seven young Westerners have been abducted and spirited off into the jungle. In the wake of the most recent kidnapping, we dispatched writer Philip Gourevitch to Phnom Penh to mingle with the shoestring-budget set and explore its curious fascination with dangerous locales. "The extremity of Cambodia's recent history, and the abiding prospect of danger, has only added to the country's allure for a certain stripe of young adventurers," says Gourevitch of his harrowing story, "Death in the Ruins" "Now they, too, are beginning to experience the horrors that Cambodians themselves have endured for more than a generation."

Elsewhere in this issue: Contributing editor John Brant finds himself in the track-and-field Valhalla of Eugene, Oregon, to learn how American two-mile record holder Marc Davis grapples with his own destiny in the shadow of Eugene's middle-distance running legend, the late, great Steve Prefontaine; Craig Vetter converses with John Middendorf, king of the big-wall climbers, about dangling bivouacs, fermented socks, and other charming aspects of this most vertiginous of sports; Marshall Sella waits for the weather to break over the cliffs of Dover as a cluster of well-greased water-fiends from around the world prepares for the swim--the 27-mile slog across the cold, gray chop of the English Channel. May the man or woman with the most body fat win.

And finally, from 20,320 feet above sea level, a bulletin from our own ranks: On June 17, after 15 days that saw gnarly weather and the deaths of two climbers, Kim Gattone, Outside's merchandising manager, summited Alaska's Mount McKinley with only superficial frostbite and a respectable case of sunburn. Can the Himalayas be far behind?

Filed To: Snow Sports

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