Two Minutes to a Savage Tan

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

Two Minutes to a Savage Tan
Check your elevation—"well done" may be closer than you think

Location Minutes to Crisp*
Summit of Mount Whitney, CA.
Elevation, 14,494 ft.; latitude, 36.5°N
Saint Tropez, France
Elevation, 200 ft; latitude, 43° N
Ilha de Marajó, Brazil (just off the equator)
Elevation, 200 ft.; latitude, 1° S
The North Pole, in summer
Elevation, 0 ft.; latitude, 90° N
Poolside at George Hamilton's Los Angeles home
Elevation, 330 ft.; latitude, 34° N
*Caution: Individual burn times may vary.
Is it an accident or solar synchronicity? Just as New York University School of Medicine dermatologist Darrell Rigel published his sunburn study, Baz Luhrmann's maddening hit "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" was about to shoot off the charts. Pop-science convergence aside, Rigel, who spent a lot of time thinking about the human epidermis before it was hip, was disturbed by an apparent gap in the research covering his métier. Although it is generally assumed that skin burns faster at increased elevations, where there are fewer impurities to block UV-B radiation (the key element behind sunburn), no one had done any current research on the topic at high altitude. Nor, for that matter, had there ever been a study on the rate of sunburn in relation to one's proximity to the equator, where the sun's UV-B rays strike Earth at a more direct angle, presumably encountering less atmospheric interference. So the good doctor decided to do the job himself.

Rigel used a palm-size aneroid altimeter and a handheld ultraviolet wavelength meter to measure the intensity of UV-B radiation in three places: New York City, where he works; Vail, Colorado, where he has a vacation condo; and Orlando, Florida. Last January he published the results in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, but photobiologists don't consider it hard science because the study did not take sufficient measurements over a long enough time span; moreover, Rigel considered only skin as lily-white as his own. Nevertheless, the results are pretty sizzling.

Rigel found that exposure to skin-scorching UV-B rays grows in intensity by 8 to 10 percent for every 1,000-foot gain above 8,000 feet and by 2 percent for every degree of latitude lost. This means that while a pasty, waiflike supermodel can bask without sunblock in sea-level Central Park for 25 minutes before her skin starts to burn, the safety zone shrinks to six minutes for Melanie Griffith or Gerald Ford standing at the bottom of Vail's number-three chairlift (10,150 feet). Meanwhile, a family of four from Des Moines faces a six-minute limit while waiting in line to buy tickets at Disney World (elevation 60 feet, but 775 miles closer to the equator than Vail). What are the implications for sunburn prevention? Above 5,000 feet and anywhere near the equator, throw away any sunblock that promises even a hint of a deep, golden tan. "SPF 15 just isn't enough," says Rigel. "Go straight to SPF 30."—GRANT S. DAVIS

Mistaken ID
Hey, you guys aren't Reinhold!

Whale Warriors
When the Makah Indians finally succeeded in conducting their first whale hunt in 70 years off Washington's Olympic Peninsula on May 18, it was cause for jubilation. "Everyone is happy," said Bender Johnson Jr., chairman of the tribal council, shortly after hunters killed a 30-foot gray whale. Well, not quite everyone. Since October 23, 1997, when the International Whaling Commission granted the Makah the right to kill 20 grays over five years in "subsistence" hunts, environmentalists have vehemently opposed the ruling. While whale defenders admit that the Makahs won't harm a healthy gray population now numbering about 26,600, they worry about precedent. "What's the IWC going to do when Japan and Norway make similar arguments?" asks Nina Young, a Center for Marine Conservation scientist. "It'll take more than four whales a year for those countries to 'subsist' on whale meat." (For an article on Baja California's gray whales, see page 78.)

When the members of retro-seventies pop trio Ben Folds Five christened their fourth and latest album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, it seemed a fitting appellation—offbeat, vaguely literary, laced with a smidgen of the tramontane. Just one small hitch: The band had no idea that Messner is a real person, let alone a legendary alpinist credited with some of mountaineering's greatest feats, including the first ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen.

The misadventure began, as often happens, with the drummer. A decade earlier and five years before Ben Folds Five would form, 17-year-old Darren Jessee was scheming to score a set of fake IDs for himself and his Charlotte, North Carolina high-school buds when he vaguely recalled hearing the name Reinhold Messner "somewhere." He decided it had a cool ring, and soon thereafter, a trio of pimply Messners was parading about town with phony Arizona driver's licenses, sneaking into bars and attempting to pick up babes.

Flash forward to the late 1990s, when Jessee's bandmates, trying to decide on a name for their new record, remembered Jessee's tale of delinquency and the name that went with it. "We thought it had this real exotic sound," explains bassist Robert Sledge. "Like one of Himmler's evil hit men who escaped to Rio." It probably says something about the business that no one at the band's label, Sony Music, questioned the name either. Last winter, days before advance copies of the album were sent to magazines and radio stations, a Philadelphia deejay stunned the band by telling them, on air, that not only was Messner a famous man, but he was alive and well and living a rather posh life in a castle in Italy.

Fearing a Himalaya-size lawsuit, the band tracked Messner down, pleaded its case, and appeased him by invoking the best argument they could come up with: that he is one bitchin' dude. "I guess Reinhold was kind of upset at first," says Sledge, "but we just tried to explain that we thought climbing was extremely cool. I mean, we take risks in our music, but he's got bigger balls than we ever will." —NICK HEIL

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