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Adventure : Politics

Will Obamacare Mean Relief for Uninsured Adventure Athletes?

Last winter, after skier Sarah Burke died from injuries sustained in a crash at Utah’s Park City Resort, the 29-year-old halfpipe champion’s family received hospital bills totaling a reported $200,000. Though Burke is Canadian, she wasn’t covered by her national health care system or by the Canada Freestyle Ski Association, because she was training for an unsanctioned U.S. event when she fell. That left Burke’s agent, Michael Spencer, asking for charity from her fans, who came through with the amount in just 24 hours. But Burke’s insurance woes caused consternation throughout the action-sports world.

“Securing reliable insurance is the hardest part of our job,” tweeted American big-mountain skier Cody Townsend shortly after Burke’s death.

Indeed, most adventure athletes aren’t paid enough to afford medical insurance, which is unusually pricey owing to the risk inherent in their jobs. Townsend, who has had four injury-related surgeries, often finds himself denied coverage. Others, like Don Bowie, a climber and expedition mountaineer, aren’t willing to spend a quarter of their salaries on premiums. “So I just don’t have insurance,” he says. “It’s too expensive.”

These days, many athletes are wondering whether the new Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, will ease the pain when its most toothy provisions go into effect in 2014. There’s certainly one upside: insurers will no longer be able to deny banged-up athletes because of previous injuries. (This is the preexisiting-conditions language you’ve heard so much about.) But they will still retain the right to exclude coverage for injuries suffered during certain risky activities. The Affordable Care Act won’t do anything to change that.

“The exclusions are in the fine print,” says Brandon Parrish, owner of RiderSurance, a company that scours health-insurance policies to find coverage for action-sports athletes. “And they can include everything from participation in organized races to the use of ropes while climbing a mountain.”

Another common exception is overseas travel: most American insurance plans won’t cover injuries sustained while you’re out of the country, and Obamacare won’t change that, either. You’ll still need to check the fine print and likely get special travel insurance to cover your vacations.

In Burke’s case, she simply failed to purchase single-trip supplemental insurance, which costs roughly $100 per week and covers most medical expenses. Her situation was unique in that it was caused by a misunderstanding rather than an inability to pay. Still, action-sports stars often leave sponsors in the difficult position of having to tell fans that an athlete’s health care isn’t their problem. In the days following Burke’s death, the drink company Monster Energy was inundated with indignant tweets like this one from Canadian Olympic gold-medalist rower Marnie McBean: “Why isn’t @MonsterEnergy paying #SarahBurke’s medical bill?”

Monster offered that they were “committed to helping [Burke’s family] financially,” though no specific figure was ever released.

For the rest of us, Obamacare will make it easier to get basic coverage, but not necessarily to drink deeply from the slacklining, big wall-climbing, freeskiing cup of life.

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The Most Ambitious Skiing Project in the United States

For two years, downhill skiers have been in a froth over a proposed gondola that would connect Utah's Canyons Resort to nearby Solitude Mountain, linking up 6,250 acres of terrain. Though the project has been slowed by concerns about environmental impacts, odds are that it will eventually get federal approval. Meanwhile, other Utah resort managers have been quietly discussing additional lifts and boundary openings that would bridge seven mountains throughout the Wasatch Range, creating a European-style network offering single-pass access to 17,000 acres. Here's a look at how and when this ambitious project could all come together.

1. SNOWBIRD <-> ALTA
Since 2001, the AltaBird ticket ($99) has allowed skiers to swipe passes at boundary turnstiles.

2. ALTA <-> SOLITUDE
PROPOSAL: A lift from Alta's base up to a cat-ski area known as Twin Lakes Pass, and another short lift from Twin Lakes Pass to the top of Solitude's Summit chairlift.

POLITICS: Alta's lift would be built in Grizzly Gulch, an area currently used for the resort's cat-skiing operation. Management needs to decide if closing that makes fiscal sense.

ETA: 2017

BONUS: Access to a 45-degree bowl full of open glades, cliffs, gullies, and ridgelines.

3. SOLITUDE <-> CANYONS
PROPOSAL: A gondola from Canyons to Solitude.

POLITICS: Backcountry skiers are upset that the gondola will cut through prime off-piste lines. Environmentalists are concerned that Canyons will develop land adjacent to the new lift, polluting the watershed. Since this is federal land, moving forward requires congressional approval; a bill made it through the House of Representatives and was expected to come up for a Senate vote in late 2012.

ETA: The gondola could be built in time for the 2013-14 season.

4. CANYONS <-> PARK CITY
PROPOSAL: A lift from Canyons to Park City.

POLITICS: Talisker, a Canadian company, owns Canyons and the land Park City operates on. But Talisker and Park City have been in a dispute over the terms of the lease. They expect to resolve it early this winter.

ETA: The lift could be built within two years of an agreement.

BONUS: Access to an open bowl and aspen glades.

5. PARK CITY <-> DEER VALLEY
PROPOSAL: Access points along the boundary between the two resorts.

POLITICS: Deer Valley and Park City execs are studying the logistics of a dual ticket.

ETA: 2013-14 season.

6. PARK CITY <-> BRIGHTON
PROPOSAL: Two lifts starting at Guardsman Pass, a seasonal backcountry road. One would carry skiers to Park City, the other to Brighton.

POLITICS: This is all private land, so approval hinges on Park City resolving a dispute with Talisker Land Holdings, its landlord. Environmentalists may try to halt construction over concerns that it will pollute the watershed.

ETA: The lifts could be built within two years of an agreement between Talisker and Park City.

BONUS: Trails down to the lifts would include everything from easy groomers to glades.

7. BRIGHTON <-> SOLITUDE
The resorts were linked in 1984. The SolBright Pass ($82) allows back-and-forth access through several gates.

ENDLESS TURNS
The numbers on a hypothetical ski-tour loop beginning and ending at Snowbird:
$105: Price of a lift ticket
15: Number of chairlift and gondola rides (includes existing lifts)
5: Hours of travel time

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Why Is This Navajo Protester Facing Jail Time?

For Navajo activist Klee Benally, the San Francisco Peaks mountain range in northern Arizona is where the world was created. The four tallest mountains there, like pillars, uphold his universe. Even people who don't follow his religion, known as the Navajo Way, may be able to relate to the feeling that comes from being in a silent forest—what Emerson called, “a sanctity which shames our religions.”

For Benally, the Peaks are nothing short of holy, and that is why, for 10 years, he's fought Arizona Snowbowl's upgrade plans that include clear-cutting 74 acres of forest and piping treated sewage effluent onto the mountain to make snow.

His most recent act of protest against Snowbowl has landed him with a complaint accusing him of violating federal law by disrupting work in a U.S. Forest Service office in Flagstaff, Arizona. He and three other protestors face fines of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail each for the misdemeanor charges, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The Forest Service owns the land where Arizona Snowbowl is located.

Wearing white suits and masks, the group displayed large banners, according to the complaint (PDF). Members of the public trying to buy permits and maps felt "intimidated" by the protestors and worried that they would not "be able to escape out of the building," it contends.

The complaint, which was based on video surveillance that did not contain audio, goes on to say that the group began chanting loudly.

However, Benally said regional forester Earl Stewart received the group politely, shaking his hand several times, and that it was "a very cordial meeting.”

A video taken by a member of the protest group shows a couple conducting business at the front desk and protestors quietly standing around the perimeter of the room holding signs. Benally is so soft-spoken that his voice can scarcely be heard above the near-constant sound of a camera shutter as a photographer takes pictures of him.

The photographer, Laura Segall, was there to shoot a New York Times article on the snowmaking controversy that ran just days after the protest and featured Benally.

Benally said he thinks the charges are trumped up and that the complaint, brought three months after the fact, is meant to "deter further protests” at Arizona Snowbowl as the resort gears up for its first ski season making the wastewater snow. 

He also noted a bitter irony in the timing of the complaint, which was brought the same day that the Department of the Interior issued a memorandum vowing to improve the protection of sites considered sacred by Native Americans. The Peaks are sacred to 13 Native American tribes, who view Snowbowl’s wastewater snow as a desecration. 

The timing of the complaint "sends a message,” said Benally. "It shows the government's lack of good faith."

Benally and two of the other protesters turned themselves in to U.S. marshals Tuesday and were arraigned hours later. One of the conditions of their release, pending trial, is that they stay away from the National Forest offices and from Arizona Snowbowl. Benally, however, is allowed to visit the area so he can continue to practice his faith. Their next court appearances are scheduled for December 27.

Leslie MacMillan is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York TimesAssociated Press, the Boston Globe, and others.

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Three Naked Hours in the Baths of Baden-Baden

“You know it’s fully nude, right?” the woman behind the ticket counter asked. “And co-ed?”

“Yes,” we said, sliding the bills across the counter. Thirty-five Euros for a three-and-a-half hour bath and brush massage at Friedrichsbad, the famous bathhouse in Baden-Baden, Germany. The woman opened the till. Tom put his arm on the desk and leaned in. “Do people ever leave when you tell them that?”

One of the bathhouse’s managers standing nearby overheard the question and told us that people often do leave when they’re told the nudity is mandatory. Not everybody’s comfortable naked. As Tom and I walked toward the locker room, we passed a middle-aged French man with what appeared to be his three 20-something children (two boys and a girl). The four of them seemed to be having second thoughts. They huddled around the manager, whispering questions. The girl, in particular, looked anxious.

Like the French family, I was a little nervous. I’m an American, and therefore by definition pretty uptight about nudity. In the U.S., we will lock you up for streaking, and this sort of co-ed bathing just doesn’t happen back home. It comforted me that some French people, who I would normally assume to be more easygoing than Americans when it came to the naked human form, appeared so frightened. But as I disrobed and tried to prepare—mentally, physically, spiritually—for the rest of the afternoon, it occurred to me that I might look just as uneasy as the French. I figured, absent clothes, the only way to really draw attention to oneself in a place like Friedrichsbad is to appear obviously uncomfortable. I needed to stay calm.

Before I stepped out of the locker room, I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and slung my towel over my shoulder. I’d heard stories of Friedrichsbad’s bathing attendants snatching towels off of frightened Americans, and I didn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction. If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.

BADEN-BADEN HAS A very James Bond feel, in that it reeks of wealth, is full of upper-class Russians, and sits in the foothills of an area in Germany called the Black Forest. All the Bond-extra-types that fill the town’s streets come for the city’s spas and its famous casino. The Casino, as it’s called, is the type of gambling establishment where the patrons wear tuxedos and ball gowns. (It’s also the setting of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler.) Walking around town, seeing display cases full of gold Fabergé eggs and streets lined with Ferraris, you get the sense that extravagance has deep roots here. Mark Twain visited in the late 1870s, noting, “It is an inane town, filled with sham, and petty fraud, and snobbery, but the baths are good.”

Friedrichsbad, the city’s fully-nude, completely co-ed, 17-stage, thermal-powered bathhouse, was built in 1877 and has stood as an emblem to all that is high-class and naked ever since. The building sits up a small flight of stairs from Baden-Baden’s old town, right on top of a thermal hot spring. Its façade is all stone, and like all neoclassical buildings, Friedrichsbad gives an impression of vague importance. And as far as bathhouses go, it is important. Friedrichsbad is one of the landmarks for Germany’s free body culture or Freikörperkultur—FKK for short. (Link is not safe for work.)

The FKK movement began in the late 1800s, arguably as a kind of reaction to the griminess of the industrial revolution. If industry was the manifestation of human impurity, with all that soot and heat, being in the forest, naked, was about as far to the opposite end of the spectrum as you could get. For the last hundred years, Germany’s nudists have succeeded in relaxing societal opposition to public nudity—and the laws governing it— to the point where public nudity is almost a non-issue today. (By comparison, even in San Francisco, the U.S.’s most liberal city, it is still very much a big issue).

Today, you can find FKK clubs from the Alps to the Baltic and everywhere in between. The Internet is awash in FKK fan sites (NSFW, again) and forums, and it’s not difficult to find extensive maps (yep, NSFW) of places in the country where showing a little skin is the norm. Even some of Germany’s most prominent tourist locations, like Munich’s English Gardens, have been taken over by nudists.

THE FIRST STEP IN the Friedrichsbad bathhouse experience is to shower (stage 1). Then you put on some sandals and head into the saunas (stages 2 and 3), where the floors are too hot for bare feet. From there, you can follow signs directing you toward each subsequent stage, or you can just wander around the steam rooms, pools, and saunas because you’re naked and no one is going to tell you what to do.

Tom and I spent about 15 minutes in each of the two sauna rooms—one 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit), the other 68 degrees Celsius (154 degrees Fahrenheit)—sipping water from a nearby fountain when dehydration loomed. Both rooms were tiled from floor to ceiling and smelled of chamomile, which I later found in a small metal box hanging from the ceiling. The box looked like a tiny, silver birdhouse, which I thought at first was an ornamental pull-chain for the lights. Only half of the 15-odd cruise ship-style recliners and chairs were occupied in the 54-degree room, and I lay down near a sprawled, middle-age woman who looked up at us with the one-eyed glance of a dozing cat.

We sat and sweat. Bathers came and went.

I didn’t have a notepad, on account of the moisture and nowhere to, uh, put it. After sitting for a while, looking around, I realized my intense interest in my surroundings—my mental note-taking—might be freaking people out. It’s not that I spent three-and-a-half hours ogling the other customers. (Although you should know, reader, that I felt ogled at times.) But as I looked around, my gaze would inevitably fall upon the naked bodies of the other bathers—and, well, it got me thinking.

Throughout our lives, how often are we actually naked? Excluding showering and (for some) sleeping, it happens pretty seldom, right? I mean, the only other time we shed clothing is when we’re getting intimate. Try as we might, it becomes difficult to divorce intimacy from the act of being nude, and this coupling casts a certain strange, erotic shadow over the proceedings at a place like Friedrichsbad. Don’t get me wrong, there was no hanky-panky going on (and frankly, there’s not a place in Friedrichsbad where it could). I only mean that it creates a social situation that’s ripe for misinterpretation. Turning to look at a person when he or she enters a room becomes complicated because anything anybody does—those perfectly normal, friendly signals we give to one another all the time without even thinking—is re-routed through this erotic zone in our brain that has been activated by the absence of clothes and which we can’t really turn off. So a casual glance becomes a potential check-out. A friendly smile is now a creepy wink. That’s what it seemed like at first, anyway.

AS I WORKED MY way through the idea that the inside of the bathhouse came with a different social contract, it came time for my brush massage (stage 5). When my number was called, a middle-aged, bald masseur led me to his massage table and said something in German that I didn’t understand. I asked if he spoke English, and his response was “Face up, please.” For the next 10 minutes or so, he scrubbed my every pore, save the obvious. The guy was thorough. After he was done, I was finally able to fully relax. Nothing’s weird after you’ve been cleaned like a farm animal by someone who speaks another language.

Next, Tom and I hit the steam rooms, the first of which was near capacity. People shuffled around, stretched, and hosed themselves down with the cool water that was piped in along the walls of the two rooms. The seats in the steam rooms were like step pyramids, and at one point the couple seated on the step above me stood and began cupping the higher, warmer air in their hands and scooping it down onto one another. When they left, I stood up and tried it myself. It was like reaching up and grabbing handfuls of Mississippi summer.

The more time ticked by, the more ridiculous my initial angst over how to comport myself in the bathhouse seemed. Why should I feel eye contact with a stranger passing in the hallway was inappropriate just because we were both nude? Why was I feigning interest in the ornamental ceiling when a woman stood up and exited the Jacuzzi? After a while I couldn’t figure out what was weird and what was normal, and it took me the better part of an hour to realize there really wasn’t any different social contract in the bathhouse, just because everybody was naked. Everyone had signed on for this, and the same rules applied: just don’t stare.

After a while, considering the novelty of the situation, it almost felt wrong not to look around. Although I must confess: I saw some things I wish I could un-see. I encountered an old man whose butt looked like two globs of mud dripping down a wall. I watched an obese man with an apron-like belly displace an impressive amount of water in the warm, stage 9 bath, which had a filter that slurped and gurgled whenever someone waded in. At one point, Tom turned to me and remarked on the incredible effect pants have had on the shape of the human body. He had a point; everyone at Friedrichsbad looked like he or she wore an invisible belt.

IN FRIEDRICHSBAD’S PROMOTIONAL LITERATURE, the pools get the most photo space, especially the stage 11 “Thermal kinotherapeutic” domed bath, a circular, about-40-feet-in-diameter, three-feet-deep, exactly-28-degrees-Celsius (82.4 degrees Farenheit) pool located under the building’s central dome. The red-white-and-gold dome is molded with deep quadrilateral reliefs, which converge near its apex around a circular skylight. It’s quite a striking place, especially when compared to some of the other rooms, which have little ornament on account of the steam. The domed room is also the place where Friedrichsbad’s two wings meet and one of the bathhouse’s two permanent co-ed areas. (During “separate bathing” days, the two wings are segregated by sex, but the central dome and an adjacent, warmer pool remain co-ed. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays, and bank holidays—we were there on a Sunday—Friedrichsbad is 100 percent co-ed, and, male or female, you’re free to wander as you please.)

Tom and I had floated around in the pools for about a half-hour when the French family we’d seen in the lobby entered the pool area. The four had been tense when we’d seen them earlier. Now they were naked and couldn’t hide their fear as they tiptoed quickly through the pool area and then back into the wing from which they’d come. As they scurried, they covered themselves—hands over crotch and across chest—as though someone had just yanked back a shower curtain on the whole family.

For the first time that day, I saw heads turn. Some people frowned in disapproval. It looked like I was right: the most assured way to attract attention in a bathhouse is to show fear. I empathized with the French family, who seemed to be having a genuinely terrible experience. For some, public nudity is just a non-starter.

I lay back on a large, almost full-body jet, and as bathers around me came and went, I began to float. It was nice—the warm water, the weightlessness, the bubbles. I closed my eyes, let my head sink underwater, and thanked God I had the good sense to not bring my parents to Friedrichsbad.

Brian Blickenstaff (@BKBlick) is a writer based in Heidelberg, Germany.

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