The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Exploration

Scott Carpenter's Grand Adventure

Dear Dad,

Thank you for the camera, the books, and skis you sent me, which are all right in front of me. I am reading Mysterious Island first. I hope you read it, for it is very interesting. And all the books I am sure will be interesting. …

The S’s on my report card stand for superb, superior, superhuman, and splendid—at least that’s what I think. But the teacher meant them for satisfactory, the highest grade you can get.

—Scott Carpenter, January 1, 1937

ON SATURDAY, November 2, my father—Project Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, who died on October 10—will be mourned and remembered at Saint John’s Episcopal, his boyhood church in Boulder, Colorado. In the spring, when the snow clears, we’ll take his ashes to the Frye place, near Clark, Colorado. Homesteaded in 1901 by his great-uncle John, it hosts family camping trips when not under snow. The grave site will be consecrated among the aspens, near the headgate, and we’ll inter his remains at 8,300 feet, laying him to rest close to the ashes of his infant son, Timothy, dead 60 years now.

This is what my father wanted, to be buried in a place that had shaped him.

Navy test pilot, undersea explorer, and world traveler, my dad was a Mercury astronaut, celebrated in The Right Stuff alongside Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, and Wally Schirra. But before that, he was just a freckled kid in 1930s Boulder, fatherless and slightly feral, besotted with frontier tales, wood lore, scouting, hunting, horseback riding, and adventure literature written for Victorian boys.

Scott was raised by his mother, Florence, and her parents, Vic and Clara Noxon. Boulder-born in 1925, he lived his first two years in New York City, because his father had won a postdoctoral grant to study physical chemistry at Columbia University. But after Florence contracted tuberculosis in 1927, Scott senior returned to his in-laws’ Boulder home, ill wife and two-year-old son in tow. Then he left for New York, promising to return. “Get better,” I think, was the plan. But Florence didn’t get better until 1938, and she supervised her son’s upbringing for ten years, with help from her parents, from her bed. Father and son negotiated their relationship after that through faithful family correspondence and some awkward visits.

Scott gained a few things from the upheaval. In Boulder there was a big house, the outdoors to explore, and loving adults to care for him. The absent, adored, hard-to-please father was his childhood motif—perplexing, normal, and satisfying by turns. Separation brought a mostly safe distance from the man’s caustic appraisals. It also brought an unusual benediction: Scott was raised by a kind grandfather, walking encyclopedia, companion, and sage.

Above all, Scott had the freedom to roam a sparsely populated Front Range landscape. Going by the nickname Buddy, he tramped through the forests behind the family house at Aurora Avenue and Seventh Street, climbed all the Flatirons, and spent half his time in spring, summer, and fall galloping around on Lady Luck, a three-quarters Arabian mare he rode bareback because he knew that’s the way the Sioux rode. In his solitude and freedom of movement, Dad experienced a kind of loneliness that combined with a longing for adventure and, ultimately, a hunger for fame. I see him in those years in a trance induced by fresh air at altitude, racing, dreaming, riding, and reading—most supervision happily avoided.

Scott was a child with evident intellectual gifts. But he was also a musician, glee-club member, and athlete, with obscure interests in what to others seemed outlandish hobbies: bow hunting, hiking, camping. He developed a fascination for edge tools. He could see things that others couldn’t, both as a matter of perspective (he was a near orphan in a town of two-parent children) and fact: he possessed twenty-ten vision.

Once, in an impromptu game of hide-and-seek on Seventh Avenue, Scott found the best hiding place, and his schoolmates gave up finding him and decided to hide from him. He discovered them in short order, and he said it was so funny, their indignation. They chanted, inexplicably, “Your father’s a scientist! Your father’s a scientist!” The taunt mystified him. Years later, after his wartime stint in the V-12 Navy College Training Program, he would return to finish his schooling at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where his dad had gotten his Ph.D. 20 years before. He plugged away at the college courses required of an aspiring engineer, but flying was the thing for him, and he hated his course in heat transfer. Flunked it twice, he remembered. CU conferred it in 1962, conceding that his valuable work experience in heat transfer on May 24, 1962—when he became the fourth American to go to space—fulfilled all the course requirements at the university. He accepted his diploma in a ceremony at Folsom Stadium.

The reward of this obscure boy’s life rests partly on chance: fate kissed his longing for greatness. He mourned the lost age of exploration, and yet all the while he was preparing to play a major role in the next one. The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” Scott was prepared. Would he have found the same place in history had he grown up in New York? I have trouble imagining it.

 

SCOTT'S MOST BELOVED sport and pastime was skiing—“the closest thing to flying,” he liked to say. The speed, exhilaration, ease of maneuvering, and expanse of sky filled him with an elation that, as an adult, he would often express on chairlifts by letting out a magnificent yodel.

He skied as a young boy with an elite group of Boulder adventurers who were older than him, mostly in their teens and early twenties. Working together, the group solved an important engineering problem, much like the one later posed by spaceflight: How do you get up there? NASA engineers had to figure out how to launch a man into space and bring him safely back to earth. For the group of Boulder visionaries, operating in the era before lift-served ski resorts were common, the problem was nearly as grand: How do you get up the mountain with your skis?

In 1936, at age 11, my dad got his first pair, wooden Northlands with no metal edges, a Christmas gift from his father that came only after years of pleading. Soon he found his way into the Boulder group, headed by a young man named Kirkendahl who had a pretty wife named Libby. With four or five others in the mix, the little ski club built a lodge at a place called the Idaho mine, an old claim perched at 10,000 feet in the mountains west of Boulder. An abandoned miner’s cabin still stood at the site, and after a substantial amount of work over two summers, the group converted it into a warm, weathertight place to live during a multi-day ski trip.

The cabin wasn’t much: one room with four big wooden bunks stacked two high, each wide enough for three people. The bunks had canvas curtains and wooden sideboards that held rough straw mattresses for everyone to put their bedrolls on. A huge old wood-burning stove with a water well and a big oven filled the southwest corner. The stove became “everyone’s best friend,” Dad would later recall.

In 1934, two years before Scott joined in, the group bought a 1928 Chevy sedan and figured out how to cannibalize it and make a lift. In the summer, they drove the Chevy to the abandoned town of Caribou, up past the Idaho mine, and then a few miles farther west over the ridge, down across the valley, past the peat bogs, and beyond the cabin to the flat top of a mine dump. There they removed the wheels and body and anchored the engine and chassis to the ground. Attached to the rear axle was a large spool of cable, and the cable was run to a huge pulley that was anchored to another mine dump way up on the mountain. The cable was run back down the mountain and attached to the body of the Chevy, now mounted on skids.

With that, all they had to do was fire up the engine, put it in gear, and let out the clutch, and four skiers could be hauled up, comfortably seated on upholstered car seats. Depending on who was at the throttle, it was often more fun to ride up than ski down. I assume this was doubly true when Scott was driving.

 

FAST-FORWARD 26 years. As John Glenn’s backup and friend, Scott Carpenter, by then a 37-year-old naval aviator and Mercury astronaut, had been training alongside the relentless Marine for nearly a year in preparation for the United States’ inaugural orbital spaceflight in 1962. On the morning of February 20, Carpenter was in the blockhouse by the launchpad with Convair engineer T. J. O’Malley as Glenn got ready to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Many people remember Carpenter’s send-off, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” which he uttered as the Atlas rocket began to thunder and lift off. O’Malley added, “May the good Lord ride all the way.”

Telemetered readouts during the flight of Friendship 7 showed that Glenn, a fit and healthy Marine, had been pushed to the limits of human endurance by his three-orbit flight. An Air Force cardiologist named Lawrence E. Lamb was alarmed, therefore, when he learned that Deke Slayton was slated for the next Mercury mission. Lamb had examined Slayton in September 1959, at NASA’s request, confirming in a written report to the young space agency that he suffered from an atrial fibrillation. This would not prevent the Air Force pilot from leading an active life, Dr. Lamb wrote, but the condition was medically disqualifying not only for spaceflight, but also for the prime pilot slot in any high-performance aircraft.

The report was initially quashed by NASA—the official word was that Slayton had only “a heart hiccup, nothing more”—but he was eventually deemed unfit for space. And so it happened that, on March 15, 1962, NASA administrator Bob Gilruth announced that my father, John Glenn’s MA-6 alternate, would take the next mission, MA-7.

Slayton’s demotion, and my father’s elevation, stunned the close-knit astronaut corps. However much desired, an outright shunning was difficult to manage at Langley AFB, where NASA was then headquartered. Service wives in general, and Project Mercury wives in particular, were averse to the practice. Keeping his mind on the mission, meanwhile, Carpenter plunged back into the grueling regimen known only to spaceflight pioneers. He had seven weeks.

Carpenter was on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral on the morning of May 24, 1962, atop the Atlas 107-D. Like Glenn, he would be pushed to his physical limits, losing eight pounds of pure sweat during the course of his nearly five-hour flight. His job was straightforward. He was to replicate, and thus confirm, Glenn’s successful orbital mission while working through a different flight plan. As ordered, he would undertake more radical spacecraft maneuvers and perform additional science and engineering experiments. During a successful, largely uneventful flight, intermittently malfunctioning hydrogen-peroxide thrusters, working off false pitch-horizon-scanner readings, wasted fuel during the first two orbits. Carpenter had enough fuel for reentry, and he kept a close eye on the gauges, working through his flight plan methodically.

At retrofire, with his pitch-horizon scanner again malfunctioning, Carpenter did what any astronaut would do. He lined up the scribe line in his small cabin window with the horizon—correcting for pitch attitude—and manually piloted Aurora 7 to a safe landing in the Atlantic. He also had to fire his retro-rockets manually on a count from Al Shepard. They malfunctioned as well, firing two seconds late.

Imagine steering a small, man-made meteor back from space through the atmosphere. It’s called blunt-end reentry, and that’s what the early astronauts did: they rode meteors down to ocean landings. While Carpenter was on his way back, chunks of heat shield started coming off, glowing hotly through his window, and he deployed his drogue chutes early, at 10,000 feet. You do that to keep a meteor from tumbling. It’s the blunt end, with its precious heat shield, that you want beneath you, not the nose. His drogue chutes reefed nicely and stabilized the capsule. He landed safely; no surprise there. He had been training for this moment, he would tell you, since fourth grade.

Once in the ocean, Carpenter secured the cabin, then grabbed his camera and climbed out through the nose of his capsule—a notable feat of upper-body strength never replicated by anyone who followed him in spaceflight. (The usual practice was to stay inside the capsule until a chopper picked the whole thing up.) Perched atop his heat-blistered spacecraft, bobbing in the swells, he inflated his life raft, tethering it to the capsule, and dropped it in the ocean. Clambering down the side, he pulled himself into the raft and lay back for the wait. Patrol planes, he knew, would be looking for him. He had landed more than 250 miles past his splashdown target, a record he would keep until Russian cosmonauts recently outdid him.

For years after, Deke Slayton’s partisans at NASA, flight director Chris Kraft in particular, used Carpenter’s overshot, in vicious rounds of infighting, to bring this consummate astronaut down and others into line. My dad would retire from the astronaut corps in 1967 with a medically grounding injury of his own, sustained in a 1964 motorbike accident. He never flew much after that.

 

SCOTT CARPENTER WAS an international hero and a warm, attentive father. He wasn’t perfect. After the Carpenter family’s ties with NASA dissolved, it seems that our ties to each other dissolved as well. Service to country, and mission, was our only glue. My parents divorced in 1971, after 23 years of marriage and five children—three still living. For many years, I didn’t see my father much after that, and I often wondered why. We would become reacquainted later on, and collaborate for five years on his biography, and my father would explain to me in his inimitably patient way, as we worked through the flight transcript, the mysteries of yaw, pitch, and roll and the challenges of piloting a tiny spacecraft, which were nothing to him. Just something he had been training for since fourth grade.

Thank you, Father, for your gifts of time and attention when I was little. Thank you for your service to country. I missed you when you left.

 

KRIS STOEVER IS THE COAUTHOR OF SCOTT CARPENTER’S 2003 BIOGRAPHY, FOR SPACIOUS SKIES: THE UNCOMMON JOURNEY OF A MERCURY ASTRONAUT. SHE LIVES IN DENVER WITH HER HUSBAND, TOM.

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Ben Saunders Sets Out on the Expedition of a Lifetime

Ben Saunders is the third in history to ski solo to the North Pole and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Brit. This month, Saunders and two other adventurers began their attempt to walk to the South Pole from Ross Island, Antarctica. At 1,800 miles over the course of four months it will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history, and the first completion of Captain Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition. British Naval Officer Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out for the South Pole in 1910. His party of five reached their destination on January 17, 1912, shortly after Norwegian Roald Amundsen had claimed the first visit, and planted his own country’s flag there. On the return trek, in 1913, Scott and his team all perished.

We caught up with Saunders at his home in London to talk about his expedition, Scott 2013.

OUTSIDE: Why this particular expedition now?
SAUNDERS: The fact that the journey hasn’t been finished is the most compelling reason. Scott is iconic, a household name in the UK. And his expedition was a poignant tragedy. His route has never been completed. The Scott expedition covered 1600 miles before its demise, and no one has eclipsed that yet. Scott set the bar 100 years ago. With everything that’s been learned about training, nutrition and the incredible advances in equipment, how come no one attempted to repeat and complete his fantastic journey?

Can you put it in real-world terms for us?
Three of us will be covering 69 marathons back-to-back, pulling twice our body weight. We will be there as professional polar explorers, not tourists, not the bumbling explorers of yore. There is a misconception that “it’s all been done,” particularly in Antarctica. It’s fueled by the fact that any tourist with enough money can fly nine tenths of the way to the South Pole and then walk or ski the last bit with a guide. Visiting the South Pole in itself is no longer noteworthy. Even though there are plenty of high-profile celebrities doing contrived stunts in Antarctica, there are still valid genuinely pioneering journeys to be done. 

I am hoping we arrive there midday and can turn around and leave immediately. It will be a tempting place to stop—there are hot showers, a tourist gift shop, and a DVD loaner library. It will be a pretty strange feeling—encountering buildings, trash, vehicles, fuel drums, all this stuff after two months of essentially sensory deprivation. I am both looking forward to it and dreading it.

The news is reporting the lowest polar ice levels in known history. What does that mean for your expedition?
Ice or lack thereof won’t affect us. Sea ice profoundly affects North Pole expeditions. And because of shrinking sea ice, it won’t be long before it’s not possible to walk or ski to the North Pole as I did. The days of those sorts of expeditions are numbered. It’s peculiar how few people understand the Arctic--that the North Pole is in the middle of the sea with nothing else around for 5.5 million square miles is beyond most people’s conception.

Can you describe a typical day on your Antarctica expedition?
Regardless of daylight, and it will be light for most of the day, we always stick to a 24-hour schedule—it makes communication with the outside world much simpler.

Each day, we’ll wake up—three of us are sharing one tent with a stove and porch at one end, we’ll melt snow for a hot drink and our insulated water bottles—two or two and a half liters per day per person. We’ll eat breakfast, then it’s a race to get out of the tent, pack sledges, and to ski for around nine hours.

We break it up into hour or hour and a half chunks, all skiing inline with one person navigating and time keeping, all three pulling sledges. Every hour or hour and a half, we’ll stop for five to ten minutes, eat drink, film, swap gloves for mittens or otherwise tweak our gear. Every day we’ll experience a wide range of temperatures and wind speeds, so we’ll layer up or down, swap goggles for glasses, and fiddle with our layers.

The evening is for updating website, phone calls to journalists, family, sponsors … And at night we do all the little jobs. Things break, there is always sewing, mending, maintaining, stretching, then we crawl into our sleeping bags and do it all again. 

In your blog, you talk about creating and following a new nutrition regimen for polar explorers. How is what you will eat different a typical “polar adventurer” diet?
When I did my first expedition 11 years ago, it intrigued me that contemporary polar expeditions typically eat a high fat diet when other endurance athletes focus on replenishing their glycogen stores with a more carbohydrate intensive diet. 

Really, a polar expedition is the ultimate ultra endurance event. When we walk to the South Pole, we will walk the same distance that cyclists in the Tour de France ride, and we’ll burn a similar number of calories. Tour de France riders don’t skip eating for five hours and then finally hunker down with a stick of butter—though that’s how polar expeditions typically dine.

 My background is in endurance sports: mountain bike racing, running, etc. And I am a physiology nerd. So I thought it strange that every other endurance athlete seemed to be using relatively high carbohydrate diets and eating frequently. I postulated that perhaps matching calories in versus calories out on paper wasn’t the best way to insure proper nutrition. I’ve used the glycogen replacement strategy on several expeditions, and instead of coming back to civilization on exhausted and emaciated and on death’s door, I came back healthy and energetic if somewhat thinner.

How do you train to walk to the South Pole? Is there an aspect of mental training?
All the team members have done numerous big expeditions in the broad field of adventure. My teammate Al Humphreys cycled around world 46,000 miles including through Siberia in winter. My other teammate Martin Hartley is polar specialist and this will be his 23rd expedition. The more experience you have in those environments, the easier the mental piece becomes.

You had one North Pole expedition halted by a broken ski binding eight days into the trip. It seems absurd that this type of gear failure can instantly end an expedition that you’d been planning for a years. Has it changed how you prepare for potential gear failure?
That broken binding wasted $250,000 of sponsorship and a year of planning. I had never seen that particular failure before—though I have replicated it since.

One of the problems for polar explorers is that there is no commercial market for what we’re doing. I can’t walk into REI and say “I need to pull 400 pounds in -45°F, what ski bindings should I take?” No one makes a ski binding like that. We’re often using stuff made from scratch, or taking gear so far beyond its intended use it puts it under an extraordinary amount of strain.

One of most difficult balancing acts is figuring out how much spare kit to take with you. Speed and safety are dictated by how much weight we’re pulling. It’s a tough balancing act. The trip with the broken binding was as ultralight as I could go for a traverse of the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada. It was a trip where everything stripped down to nothing. Antarctica will be a longer, slower trip. We have two sets of skis each. We’ll have spare poles, maybe even spare boots.

What do you consider your most reliable gear?
MSR XGK stoves. They’re extraordinarily reliable—stalwart. Often on expeditions you’re buying fuel that is dirty and nasty. The XGK can handle it. And the throbbing hiss of it fired up full force is the most reassuring sound imaginable—it’s the sound of safety and security. Without a stove, in the polar regions, you won’t have water, and without water, you won’t survive long.

When you first reached the North Pole, you were the youngest to do so. What do you think about young athletes trying to reach the summit of Everest, climb the seven summits, sail across the Atlantic alone? Is there an age at which it’s too young to be exploring the limits of your potential in this way? 

I sort of feel uncomfortable about slew of teenage firsts. Often, it seems to be parents living vicariously through these achievements. But I’d be last person to discourage anyone from taking on this adventurous challenge.

Looking back I served a long apprenticeship before I got into something big. I worry that people become fixated on enormous goals. I worry that people want to take the shortest route to “firsts.” The team was just training in Greenland’s Watkins Mountains, where most of the peaks haven’t been climbed or named. There was no one else there at all. We were in Greenland at the same moment that people were queuing on Everest. Those queues make me feel very uncomfortable. Though I realize that I am partly responsible.

Is this a career that you accidentally fell into and now it’s what you do? Or is this something you’ve been moving towards your whole life.
It’s a childhood dream come true. I loved reading about explorers and adventurers and people doing pioneering stuff outdoors. Then I spent a year in my late teens working for John Ridgway—the first person to row Atlantic, which he did in 1966. He founded an adventure school in the Scottish Highlands. I worked there when I was 18-19. That was the year that the screw came loose. Ridgeway was a hero of mine. I was an impressionable age. And I wanted to do something that great too.

What does your mom think?
My mom is my biggest fan, and she was my first ever sponsor, I think she has the hardest time of it, When I first went to the North Pole with Penn Hadow, my polar mentor, I was 23, he was in his 40s. His wife was fine with him going on a massive expedition, but his mom was a wreck. Moms don’t ever really think of you as a man, regardless of your age, they think of you as vulnerable 11-year old school boy.

Now on expeditions, we have telephone, and I blog every night. My mom now says that the communication is too intimate.

Do Polar Explorers take performance-enhancing drugs?
I’ve never been dope tested. I think Captain Scott had cocaine in his first aid kit, but we don’t.

Is this kind of expedition fun? Is there some kind of internal clock that is always driving you to the next extreme trip?
Part of me does fear that expeditions are like a crack habit or something. There’s a danger that it becomes an all-consuming obsession. 

Some of happiest days of my life and most awe-inspiring moments of my life have been on expedition. No rock concert, no art gallery has taken me close to those experiences. But there is never a day in civilization that is so shitty as the worst days on expedition. There have been days I wished I could fall over and break my leg so I could get out of wherever I was with ego intact. It’s the intensity of experiences, the scale, majesty, beauty of places, genuine wilderness. To be somewhere with no sign of anything man-made is really special 

Follow Saunders expedition prep at scottexpedition.com. Learn more about Ben Saunders and his expeditions at bensaunders.com, and listen to Saunders TED talk.

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Six-Month Review: Trek Stache 8

SIX-MONTH REVIEW: TREK STACHE 8
Race bikes have dominated the hardtail category for years. And the lightest, fastest option was always a bike without rear suspension (although bikes like the new Specialized Epic, which is less than a pound heavier than the comparable hardtail, is blurring that logic), so hardtails have generally tended toward steep head tube angles and 100-millimeter forks.

All that’s changing.

A longer-travel hardtail may sound like an oxymoron, but a growing number of manufacturers have rolled out bicycles with 120-, even 140-milimeter forks, no suspension in back—based on the premise that rear suspension is just overkill.

Even in locales with rougher terrain, a hardtail’s lack of creaking pivots and other moving parts, plus its relatively low cost, may outweigh the performance positives of full-suspension. In some places, the big-bike, jump-oriented crowd has thrown dropper seatposts on these hardtails and torn up five-foot drops, doing stunts on this slacker variety—because under such rigorous riding, full-suspension durability can inhibit performance.

Trek released the Stache in 2013 against that backdrop, and the bike has become something of a cult hit. It’s an aluminum hardtail with a 120-millimeter fork that, thanks to the snappy, green, color-matched parts, became affectionately known as The Hulk Bike (versus the Captain America GT Zaskar 9r Pro LE). We heard so many people raving about it that we felt compelled to test it. And after more than six months of beating it up, we’re glad we did.

FRAME
The Stache comes only in Trek’s hydroformed Alpha Platinum aluminum, which is the highest-caliber grade the company produces. It’s a compact but comfortable cockpit, with a press-fit bottom bracket and, happily, 142-by-12-inch rear axle configuration. The latter not only adds strength out back for rougher riding, but ensures wheel compatibility with other bikes in your stable, as these dimensions are all but standard on bikes these days.

As with most Trek 29ers, the Stache features G2 geometry, which may sound like just a hot-button marketing phrase, but actually really works. Without completely geeking out, G2 geometry means the crown of the fork is set forward 51 millimeters from the head tube of the bike, which makes the fork angle more steeply (without totally messing up the seating position) and puts your hands farther forward than they otherwise would be to enable quick steering and agility. Whereas many 29ers, especially those with a 68-degree head tube, may steer sluggishly, the Stache is snappy and playful.

Overall, it’s a simply designed frame that is responsive to acceleration, although several testers felt that it wasn’t as quick and flickable as they’d expected. Then again, that means the Stache is more balanced than similar bikes in its category, making it a great all-around ride. And, yes, we love the Incredible Hulk styling, with swathes of paint to match the anodized lime hubs and crank, because it also has plenty of smoky gray to cover the rest of the frame, tempering any obnoxious, hipster-like tendencies. It’s cool, but not too cool.

COMPONENTS
When we ride Shimano SLX parts—third tier in the line—we sometimes wonder why anyone would spend double and quadruple for the higher-grade stuff. (Answer: weight.) Heft aside, these components work amazingly well. Shifting is whipped cream-smooth, and we've experienced neither brake fade nor the need to bleed in nearly nine months of use. As noted, we love the color scheme, so the Race Face crank, while hardly feathery, is a perfect choice. The rest of the bits and pieces are alloy versions of Trek’s Bontrager parts (exactly what you’d expect at this price), and they work just fine.

The one area where the Stache screeches to a proverbial halt is the wheels, house-made Bontrager Duster series hoops. Look, for this kind of money we’re not expecting Enves, but we continue to be disappointed with even the higher-grade models of Bontrager wheels. These low-end ones are hefty and plodding and hold back the bike. We swapped in a pair of mid-grade Easton EC70s for comparison and were amazed by how much livelier the bike felt. Because Trek will never spec an outside brand, insofar as Trek is affiliated with Bontrager, the company needs to sink some money into wheel design. A brand this big shouldn't have inferior hoops.

Trek has invested a lot in tires recently, and it shows. The 29-3s stocked on the Stache are appropriately wide, at 2.3 inches (although don’t measure that full-width), and the tread pattern manages to find a nice balance between fast-rolling and super-grip. These have become some of our favorite desert tires, but we've had a few sidewall tears (not on the Stache, but on the new Fuel EX 29er). Even so, we’d almost prefer to see the awesomely chunkier 29-4 on front, which would add weight to the showroom floor but make an absolute standout front tire, for under an incredible variety of conditions.

With the exception of the ho-hum wheels, this is a smart, solid parts spec—including its custom Fox Evolution Series 32 Fork. We don’t love Fox’s 2013 Climb-Trail-Descend design, which is dumbed down from previous generations, but that’s more a gripe with Fox than with Trek. You can mostly overcome this problem by leaving the bike in trail mode.

BOTTOM LINE
For the most part, we were impressed with the Stache—and notably so, since too often a bike with this amount of hype has a tough time living up to expectation. This is a simple, hard-working mountain bike that we’ve loved in nearly every setting, from the smoothie-fast trails of Santa Fe to the utterly thrashing, big-step, red-rock riding in Sedona. And yes, a few of our testers lobbed some pretty big features, and the Stache came out no worse for wear.

The two biggest drawbacks of the Stache are its seatpost and price. Although its frame is plumbed for a stealth dropper, which means Trek realizes it’s ripe for one, it doesn’t come equipped, which is a shame. In spite of the hardtail, it would be much easier for this bike to keep up with a full-suspension model if its seat were down (especially for $2,419, which is considered cheap these days but from our perspective seems sort of pricey for a hardtail). The Diamond Back Mason gives more travel up front plus a dropper for about the same money, and GT’s Captain America, although not in the same category, delivers full suspension for almost 25 percent less. At 25.9 pounds for our size medium, it’s not a light ride, either.

Trek has expanded the Stache line from two bikes to three for 2014, with an even less expensive model at $1,429. That’s a lot of bike for that price, especially if you’re just getting into the sport and want something you won’t quickly outgrow. But this is also a bike that could easily handle the trail-riding needs of at least 80 percent of mountain bikers. Whether or not 80 percent are willing to ride a hardtail, which demands more skill than full suspension, is another question. But we’re happy to see great bikes like this one at the lower end of the price range, especially when it’s not a budget model but something so deft and fun to ride.

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A Wild Ride

It’s amazing, the people you meet in Namibia's bush—especially while you're mountain-biking.

Ten hours after leaving Namibia's capital, Windhoek, we went jangling down a spider web of pocked and beaten desert tracks, into what seemed like total isolation. But then our little safari group pulled into a mobile, tented camp on the banks of the desiccated Huab River. There, with a mane of flaxen hair—a wild contrast to his red-and-white shop kit—Mannie “Mr. African” Heymans sat beneath an acacia tree, swigging Windhoek Lagers while he waited for us.

Our tour operator, Kunene Conservancy Safaris, told us they'd hired a local bike shop to oversee our stay. But it’s nonetheless surprising when you find a three-time Olympian, a Cape Epic and TransAlp winner, waiting to ride with you.

And the stars kept coming. Our guide for six days was Garth Owen-Smith, author of An Arid Eden and grandfather of the conservancy movement in Namibia. This country is one of the bright spots in wildlife conservation, with increasing numbers of free-roaming lion, rhino, and elephant, and the largest population of cheetah in the world. The conservancies are responsible for much of the success. As per an agreement, rural communities receive large tracts of land in exchange for preserving the wildlife—a deal that's been wildly successful thanks to the economic benefits and the control it gives locals. Owen-Smith and his partner, anthropologist Margaret Jacobson, began working on the idea in the early 1980s, and since then, Namibia has placed 44 percent of its land under localized protection management.

Also along for the ride was Dr. Philip “Flip” Stander, one of the world’s foremost researchers and experts on desert lion. He has collected field studies of the reclusive animal for decades, and with his giant bedraggled beard, his dust-stuffed clothes, and lack of shoes, he looks as though he hasn’t left the bush since he got there.

Over six days, our group of journalists, travel industry leaders, and World Wildlife Fund policy analysts explored the Kunene, the northwestern-most province of Namibia. On the Huab and Huanib rivers, we spotted elephant and rhino in their natural habitat. Giraffe, zebra, and an arc’s worth of antelope—including Namibia’s national animal, the oryx—grazed both far and near as we moved through the environment. Two prides of lion patrolled the shadows during our stay in the Huanib.

We did much of the tracking in Land Rovers, but on several occasions we took Heyman’s fleet of bikes into the bush to search for animals. These rides were highlights of the trip; without the constant clank and growl of the engines, the animals were less inhibited, allowing us a closer look.

One evening, at a spot appropriately named Wereldsend, or World’s End, we spun slowly up a dirt track with herds of oryx and zebra all around us, their hooves thundering so hard on the plain that we could feel it through our bikes.

I’ve been on many safaris, from Togo to Tanzania, Zimbabwe to South Africa, and I was won over by the mountain bike variety on this trip. Not only does it give closer access to the animals, it puts you in the landscape rather than confining you to a vehicle—looking through the window as though you were watching TV. After a day in the saddle, you feel relaxed and healthy, not knotted and creaky from a ride in a jouncing Land Rover.

“Not many people are coming to do the bike safaris yet, but I think that it’s definitely the best way,” says Leander Borg of NatureFriend Safaris, the operator who is teaming up with Heymans for the two-wheeled-bike adventures.

“You see wild lions and rhino from your bicycle. Can you imagine?”

THREE TOP MTB SAFARI OPS
NatureFriend Safaris
can customize trips for anyone from solo travelers to large groups, and because they work with Mannie’s Bike Mecca, the gear is first-rate. I rode an XTR-equipped carbon Merida full-suspension bike that Heymans once raced in the Cape Epic. Normally companies that are not bike-specific do a terrible job with gear and riding for true cyclists, but NatureFriend owner Leander Borg does riding (and is a great rider in his own right) as well as he does hospitality. This might just be the ultimate Bike Safari company out there.

Steve and Di Thomas of Daytrippers of Cape Town don’t specialize in safaris, but they can tailor any bike trip in South Africa to include not just great riding but also great game viewing. Daytrippers runs set-training camps for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere looking for an exotic, warm-weather riding escape in the winter.

Cape Town-based African Bikers, run by German-transplant Andreas Lappe, offers hiking, adventure, and cycling itineraries from South Africa all the way up to Uganda—including Madagascar. Having crossed the continent by bicycle himself, Lappe draws upon great knowledge for story-telling during custom cycling tours.

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Five Family Archaeological Adventures for Fall

Just because school's back in session doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel on family adventures. In the spirit of the season, make your outings educational. With cooler days and fewer crowds, fall's an ideal time to explore the many cultural sites and ancient ruins around the country. Learning vacations shouldn't be a tough sell. After all, most kids are natural-born archaeologists: They ask a million questions and love to dig in the dirt.

But setting little ones loose on ancient ruins without advance prep is a recipe for mayhem, as I learned on a family trip to Gisewa Pueblo in New Mexico earlier this summer. The Native American settlement, dating back at least 700 years, was once home to a 17th-century Spanish Mission church and today is home to some 2,000 people of the nearby Jemez Pueblo community. My four sons, ages two to eight, know how to hike a trail—scouring the ground for beetles and lizards—but this adventure challenged them in new ways. They couldn't resist climbing and exploring ruins, nor could they slow down long enough to appreciate the subterranean stories of an ancient culture, preserved just beneath the topsoil.

But, lucky for us, our tour guide was Matthew Liebmann, friend, Harvard professor, and archaeologist, who's spent over a decade living with the Jemez people and studying their ancestral heritage.

With a little guidance, the kids learned to explore cultural sites with respect and curiosity, to become, as Liebmann puts it, "modern-day Indiana Joneses, who are both brave and ethical, and won't run into a sacred temple and swipe an indigenous people's most cherished idol." Follow Liebmann's five ways to raise budding archaeologists; then let them loose, feeling more responsible, at one of Liebmann's top kid-pleasing cultural sites this fall.

(Actually, at a time when sojourners are rushing after Forrest Fenn's reported $3-million buried treasure, these are behavioral guidelines we can all stand to practice.)

Take only pictures; leave only footprints.
Don’t remove arrowheads, shards of pottery, or any other artifact from a park or historic site. You might pick them up and look carefully, with curiosity, but once you're done, put them back where you discovered them. "These artifacts are pieces to a puzzle we want to preserve as archeologists so that we can learn from them," says Liebmann. "When they are removed from their place, the pieces lose their contextual story. And the place loses a piece of information that could shed light on how people inhabited and survived in the world at that time." If you think you found something of magnitude, leave it where you found it and alert a park authority.

Make weird things seem normal and normal things seem weird.
When approaching a new culture with kids, point out the similarities—that they lived in houses, just like us. Then admire the differences—that their houses were built into cliffs. Ask questions: How did they eat? What did they eat, and where? “Sometimes people in the past did things that seem really weird to us today, but they did those things for good reasons, some of which are similar to why we might do things today," says Liebmann. "Why would people crouch down in a hole for hours on end in order to catch an eagle, to get some tail feathers? They could ask the same thing about why we wait hours in line for a chance to see Justin Bieber.”

Impress upon your kids: It may be different, but it's not bad.
When visiting ancient ruins, says Liebmann, "let go of the presumption that because the people lived long ago they were either savages or stupid. Many of these cultures lasted thousands of years—a lot longer than [our culture] has to date—and they came up with ways to live, survive, and even thrive in the world." Pay attention to how cultures adapted to their environment. Was it arid, or wet? Hot, or cold? Visiting historic places is a great opportunity to appreciate diversity and encourage empathy.

Study up and develop a discerning eye.
Do some reading before your trip so you can tell your child about the site in advance. "Going beyond Wikipedia pays off," say Liebmann. Discuss how you expect them to behave. Consider scheduling a tour with park rangers or local guides, as they know the area inside and out. Pay attention to the details; something that looks like a hill in a wide-open, flat space might actually be the remains of a thousand-year-old village. Train your eye to notice what is manmade and what was caused by the elements. "This discerning eye is a skill that gets sharper with practice and research," says Liebmann. "It's like bird-watching. When you start out, a bird is a bird. But as you learn, you begin to recognize the exotic ones."

Don’t try to do it all in one day.
Start with the most impressive section and work your way out. Covering one section well is better than messily trying to cover all of them. You'll need to be ready to pull the ripcord at any time with young ones in tow, so pack plenty of water and snacks, and make sure everyone is dressed appropriately for the environment.

Five family-friendly destinations:
1. Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez, Colorado
The nine-hundred-year-old cliff dwellings of Ancestral Pueblo (a.k.a., Anasazi) look as though they were built yesterday. Don't miss the guided tour of Balcony House. Kids will love crawling through a 12-foot tunnel on all fours to access the site, and later climbing down the ladders when it's time to leave.

2. Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, Collinsville, Illinois
Just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, this site was the ancient capital of North America, occupied from A.D. 700–1400. Explore the remains of a city that boasted over 30,000 people, whom archaeologists call "Mississippians," though we don't know what they called themselves. Climb to the top of Monks' Mound, a ten-storey platform where the temple of the paramount chief used to be. And see the reconstructed "Woodhenge," a calendrical time-keeping device erected to mark the solstices.

 3.  L'Anse Aux Meadows National Historical Site, Newfoundland
The only known European settlement in North America before Columbus, this site dates back 1,000 years ago. See the excavated remains and reconstructed versions of the peat-turf houses that were briefly occupied by Norse seamen (a.k.a., Vikings) during the time of Leif Erikson.

 4.  Jamestown, Virginia
In the past decade, archaeologists have discovered the site of the original Jamestown Fort—among a slew of other finds. Kids will love the ferry ride across the James River and the hands-on archaeology demonstrations. Bring your swimsuits and take a dip in the river after your visit, or detour to nearby Colonial Williamsburg. Jamestown is home to an impressive museum as well.

5. Teotihuacan, Mexico
Just north of Mexico City, this bustling pre-Aztec metropolis of over 100,000 people was the New York City of the Ancient World, thriving from 300 B.C.A.D.600. The city is home to the Pyramid of the Sun, which is one of the largest pyramids in the world, built upon a base larger than those in Egypt.

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