U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
“Best athlete” discussions always make for an interesting
debate in the sense that they’re always totally stupid and pointless and
boundary-less, so you’re basically arguing about completely different things
and no one ever gets anywhere. More than anything, if even anything, your idea
of the best-ever athlete says something about you rather than anything about
the history of sports.
David Roberts discusses his book Finding Everett Ruess, the enduring mystery of the explorer's death, and why Jon Krakauer nearly quit before writing Into the Wild. To listen to the extended interview click here, or subscribe to our iTunes podcasts. --Stayton Bonner
In 1934, 20-year-old Everett Ruess disappeared in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah. Why are we still discussing him? Ruess was a precocious teenage artist soloing for 10 months straight in the desert southwest. I’ve been to the more remote canyons and plateaus he visited and can appreciate just how out there he was in the 30s. Then there was the mystery of his death.
What happened? His last known campsite is in Davis Gulch, 50 miles out in the desert from Escalante. Really remote. Five months went by and there’s no word from him. The parents got their letters sent back from the postmistress, beginning a lifelong search for their lost son. Today there are four theories: he decided to go native and live a secret life on the Navajo Res or in Mexico, had an accident and fell off a cliff or drowned in the Colorado or froze to death in a winter storm, committed suicide, or was murdered. I think this last option is the most likely.
In 1999, Camille Seaman gave up her seat on a one-hour flight from Oakland to L.A. and scored a round trip ticket anywhere in the world. She chose Alaska. Once there, she decided to walk from a coastal town named Kotzebue across the ice towards Russia. After feeling cold, lost, and somewhat panicked, she had a moment where she stopped, looked around, and felt a connection to the earth. That one moment ignited a passion for Arctic landscapes that she turned into a career. --Joe Spring
When did you get started as a photographer? Not until I was 32 did the switch come on that I needed to use the camera as the tool.
What caused that switch to come on? It was two things. Most specifically it was the fact that I went to high school in Manhattan. One of the jobs I had was as a bike messenger, and I used to deliver things to the World Trade Center all the time. Also, just being a student in New York, all of these pictures of me and my punk rock friends had those towers in the back. So that, when they fell, I had these pictures that had a very different meaning. I understood for the first time the importance of a photograph as a historic document—you know, proof that these buildings existed.
At the same time, I had a child, and she was almost two, and it seemed strange to me that she wouldn't know those buildings the way that I did.
And so, I actually remember the moment. I was watching one of those CNN reports. We were attacking Iraq and there were all of these cool night vision scenes of bomb exploding, and I just remember thinking, What can I do to counter all this negative cynicism? It just seemed so bleak. I remember watching the TV and thinking the only thing I could do was make pictures. And just like that a switch came on. I knew that I wanted to use a camera to show that there were some pretty amazing things about life and about this planet.
Outside contributor Alan Arnette discusses his plan to climb the seven summits and raise more than $1 millon for Alzheimer's research—all within a year. To listen to the extended interview click here, or subscribe to our iTunes podcasts. --Stayton Bonner
What’s the goal? I’m trying to raise a million dollars for Alzheimer’s research and awareness of the disease, and to give visibility to the caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients.
Climbing background? I didn’t live in my car and rock-climb as an 18-year-old. Around my mid-30s, I started climbing. Since my 38th birthday, I’ve been on 25 expeditions around the world, including Broad Peak, K2, and Everest.
What motivated you to use climbing as a means for raising awareness about Alzheimer’s? My mother Ida died of Alzheimer’s about a year and a half ago. As we watched her going through the stages of Alzheimer’s—losing your short-term memory, your long-term memory, your ability to care for yourself, your identity, and then your life—we felt horribly frustrated. I learned more and came to understand it can hit people in their 50s. It’s not related to diet or exercise. There’s no way to prevent it. And, worst of all, there’s no cure. So I said, “I need to do something to raise awareness.”
What did you do? I’ve posted videos on my website and Outside to hopefully bring people in. One of the most poignant moments was when I sat down to talk with her about my dad, who was going through some physical problems at the end of his life. I said, “Mom, Dad is in some serious shape.” She said, “I know, I know. But who are you again?” She had no idea who I was.
How did that feel? It was a wake-up call. Mom was always the memory keeper in our family. She could tell you what cousin Bill’s brother’s uncle did yesterday. So for her all of a sudden to not even recognize her own son was frustrating and sad. Later, I just totally broke down. It was a devastating personal moment.
How are the climbs going? I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of emails I’ve received from people who have parents going through Alzheimer’s. It’s important to note that I never even touch a penny of the donations. The links on the site go straight to the causes. None of the money supports me or my climbs. I ask people to make a pledge of a penny a foot. Every time I raise another foot higher, it’s another penny in the bank.
But you take donations on the metric system as well? Metric, imperial, intergalactic, you name it.
How did you become a professional adventurer? Well, it wasn’t a job option on the high school aptitude test. Once I graduated from university, I wanted to climb and be outdoors as much as possible. I worked as a part-time carpenter and kept up a relationship with The North Face. One thing led to another and I'm lucky to be where I am now. It was a circuitous path with lots of adventure throughout.
How did it feel coming across George Mallory’s remains on Everest? It was a very humbling moment. Mallory set the stage for the subsequent Everest ascent in 1953. His body had been covered in snow for most of the time, save for an exceptionally windy winter. During those times he was exposed, his body had been eaten by the ravens encircling Everest. In a way, he was given a sky burial, which is part of Tibetan culture.
What was it like recreating his journey for The Wildest Dream DVD? We now wear oil-based clothing, from synthetic insulation to foam-insulated boots and nylon. In the 1920s, everything was organic—leather, wool, silk, and cotton. My admiration for Mallory increased every time it got cold. Noodling around on the North Side of Everest in a button-down jacket most people would wear for a casual dinner function, you’re like, “Oh my God, these guys were really strong.”
Favorite climbing movie? Cliffhanger is good fun if you turn the sound off and watch it with some PBRs.
How can we find adventure in the modern world? Specifically choose not to take a GPS. Just create a challenge. You can climb Everest or walk across Antarctica with minimal gear and still have that sense of adventure. But in terms of exploration, Google Earth has this world mapped down to the square foot.
Have you seen climate change effect at high altitudes? As a climber, I practice the sport on tall mountains. If you compare Everest photographs in 1953 with its current state, things are melting. I imagine if I were a golfer in Indiana, I’d be hard-pressed to believe in climate change because nothing’s going on there. But when you’re up in the mountains and seeing the glaciers melt away, it’s an obvious physical manifestation of a warming planet.
Will we see you competing in 2014? Probably not. You’re more likely to see a competition ice-climber like Sam Elias. I mean, I’m 48. If I made it to the Olympics, it’s because the youth are a bunch of slackers.