The Outside Blog

Adventure : Science

When Ski Resorts Melt

It's a sad fact: winter is shrinking. The Rutgers University Global Snow Lab reports that the Northern Hemisphere has lost more than a million square miles of snow since 1970. That's why the hottest trend in the winter-sports industry is warm-weather activities. In April, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a new system that makes it significantly easier for resorts to get permits for things like canopy tours and ropes courses. Here are four of the best excuses to get back on the lift—this time in shorts and a T-shirt.

Walk the Razor's Edge

Fernie, British Columbia
Fernie has long been overshadowed by provincial brethren like Whistler and Revelstoke, which is fine by locals—the serious alpine terrain is largely empty. Try the ridge traverse across the breathtaking Lizards Range crest. Start at the top of the Timber chairlift and take a 20-minute stroll through open meadows past Lost Boys Pass and, if you want the added security, along a short fixed rope to 7,010-foot Polar Peak, where the views span from southern Alberta to Montana. From there the three-mile loop winds down through wildflower meadows to the Lost Boys Café, where you can down a well-earned Kokanee. $22 lift ticket.

Bikes and Bikram

Snowmass and Aspen, Colorado
The two signature resorts in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, Snowmass and Aspen, deliver summer's yin and yang. Snowmass has the adrenaline rush: it already boasts the only lift-served 4,000-foot mountain-bike descent in the U.S., starting above the treeline and ending in the high desert. And this year the resort is teaming up with the renowned trail builders at Gravity Logic to add a full-size beginner park and pump track. Upvalley at Aspen, it's a bit mellower. Take the Silver Queen gondola to the 11,212-foot Sundeck for thrice-weekly yoga sessions with views of the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. Bonus: the Sundeck hosts bluegrass shows every Sunday throughout the summer.

Armor Up

Mammoth Mountain, California
Southern California's largest resort has a long affiliation with downhill mountain biking. Last year, Mammoth brought back the Kamikaze Bike Games, the precursor to the Mountain Bike World Championships, which included the sport's first lift-served downhill race in 1986. The revamped games now feature gravity, cross-country, and cyclocross races over four days in September. If you can't make it then, check out the updated bike park—where attendance has grown 22 percent in the past two years—and its new pump track, beginner loop, and skills park (think small drops, berms, and bridges). $49 day pass, $359 season pass.

Take to the Trees

Stowe, Vermont
This year, Stowe—already one of Vermont's busiest summer hubs—debuts two fresh options. The first is a zip line near the top of 4,395-foot Mount Mansfield that sends visitors whizzing down 2,150 vertical feet over roughly two miles. The second is a high ropes course on Spruce Peak that will feature six routes for kids and adults alike, with challenges suspended up to 30 feet above the ground. If you prefer to remain on terra firma, there's always the 150-year-old, unpaved Auto Toll Road, which leads to Mansfield's summit ridge, where a 1.3-mile hike puts you atop Vermont's highest peak.

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Maximize Your Vacation Happiness

You’ve likely got a vacation coming up soon. Whether you’re headed abroad for a week or simply to a cabin in the woods over Labor Day, start planning now. That's the number-one piece of advice from the folks over at Happify, who worked with scientists to determine the best tips and strategies for a happier vacation. 

Here’s what else you need to know:

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/happify_vacation.jpg","size":"large"}%}

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Discover the Outdoors in America's Most Secret Town

Earlier this week, the tiny town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, won Liveability’s “Best Small Town” contest for its diversity, education, population growth, health, and civic engagement. Although we agree that the Atomic City scores well in these areas, it’s the area’s outdoor scene that really blows us away (no pun intended). In fact, Los Alamos scored a whopping 84 on Outside’s Best Towns index (see below for judging criteria), on par, per capita, with places such as Missoula and Anchorage.

Here’s what you need to know about America’s most secret town.

Thirty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe, Los Alamos straddles a series of canyons that feed into the Rio Grande Valley below. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom on the eastern horizon, and the rugged Jemez range towers immediately to the west. This landscape is particularly gorgeous at the beginning or end of the day, when the sun is rising or setting above one range and reflecting off the other.

It was on this high desert plateau that the atomic bomb was developed during World War II. The crowning achievement of Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb solidified the town’s place in history, and—as the Manhattan Project morphed into the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory—ensured that Los Alamos would remain shrouded in mystery. Today, it remains a town of secret nuclear experiments and over-the-top security, where plutonium is (falsely) rumored to seep into the drinking water and the local science museum boasts full-scale replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/lanl_fe.jpg","width":"800","height":"450","caption":"The Los Alamos National Laboratory, where discoveries are made."}%}

Eleven thousand of the world’s best scientists living together in the mountains makes for a very intelligent and diverse (not to mention socially awkward) community. But this culture and brilliance are exactly what set Los Alamos apart from anywhere else in New Mexico—and the world. Well, that and the fact that its location offers unparalleled opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate the 37 percent grade of Pajarito Mountain or the volcanic-rock singletrack that is oh-so-good for mountain biking. 

Here are six Atomic City events to check out:

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/jemez_runs_shirt_fe.jpg","width":"800","height":"450","caption":"JMTR participants receive race shirts and pottery from the nearby Jemez Pueblo."}%}

Jemez Mountain Trail Runs

Held every Memorial Day weekend, the Jemez races—a half marathon, 50K, and 50-miler, now in their ninth year—are considered among the toughest in the country. Technical trails, substantial elevation changes, steep climbs, torturous descents, scree fields, stream crossings, and more—all at altitude—make for a tough but scenic race. Anton Krupicka, who won the 2014 50-miler, called the stretch between miles 45 and 50 “spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.”

Runners can enjoy well-stocked aid stations along the way but should carry their own water—the only cups in this race are handmade pots from nearby Jemez Pueblo that runners can claim at the end. “The finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it,” Krupicka wrote. “Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere.”

Out of town on Memorial Day? Save the date for Pajarito Trail Fest, held on the ski hill in October. Run 15 mile or 10K under golden aspen and, more often than not, snow.

Refuel: The deli at the Los Alamos Cooperative Market is full of fresh, local, organic options that range from breakfast burritos to green chile enchiladas. Be sure to check out the baked goods, which include tasty treats for vegan and gluten-free customers.

Co-op baked goods and coffee are also available at Fusion Multisport, the only bike and running shop in town.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/michelle_pederson_PMSA_fe.jpg","width":"800","height":"450","caption":"Michelle Pederson flies down Pajarito Mountain."}%}

EnduroFest

If going downhill fast is your idea of a good time, the inaugural three-day Los Alamos Rock 'n Roll EnduroFest in early August is not to be missed. Start at the top of 10,440-foot Pajarito Mountain and zip down 7.5 miles and 3,900 vertical feet of free-ride and XC trails until you hit smooth singletrack. Then, catch the shuttle and do it all again, or just hang out on the ski hill and enjoy live music and local beer from Marble, Santa Fe Brewing, and La Cumbre Brewery.

Sponsored in part by the Los Alamos Tuffriders (the local IMBA chapter), the weekend also features clinics, guided rides, barbecue, and a kids’ race.

Road bikes more your thing? Don’t miss the Tour of Los Alamos, the oldest bicycle race in the Southwest. 

Refuel: On the ski hill, order a burger from the Pajarito Mountain Cafe and sit on the lodge deck to watch cyclists scream down the slopes. Back in town, stop by Pajarito Brewpub and Grill for a bison burger and one (or more) of the 30 beers on tap.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/LA_triathlon_fe.jpg","width":"800","height":"450","caption":"The Los Alamos Triathlon is the oldest continually run triathlon in the country."}%}

Los Alamos Triathlon

Like a lot of things in the Secret City, the mid-August Los Alamos Triathon is just a little off: It starts with the bike. But no one seems to mind—now in its 40th year, the race is the oldest continuously run triathlon in the country. Riders start at 7,400 feet at the Walkup Aquatic Center and charge hard to “the back gate,” as locals call the end of lab property on the west side of town. Once back in the transition area, the swim is 400 meters in the highest-altitude Olympic-sized pool in the country, and the run is a mostly flat out-and-back 5K with stunning views of the Jemez on the out.  

Sound too watered down for you? Opt instead for the Atomic Man Duathlon, hosted by local multisport club the Triatomics, with two course options named Fat Man and Little Boy. (To geek out even more on World War II history, afterward visit the Bradbury Science Museum, which offers more than 40 interactive exhibits about the Manhattan Project and the lab’s role in national security.)

Refuel: Ruby K’s Bagel Cafe is just a half-mile walk from the race finish and offers plenty of homemade bagels, soups, and salads. Get the full Los Alamos experience: Order the “Up & Atom,” eggs and sausage topped with salsa and melted cheddar on a green chile bagel.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/pajarito-snow_fe.jpg","width":"800","height":"450","caption":"Pajarito mountain on the morning of Pajarito Trail Fest."}%}

If shredding powder instead of singletrack is more your style, keep Pajarito in mind during ski season. The snow has not been great lately, but on a good year the mountain has about 300 acres of skiable terrain, including tree, bump, and Nordic skiing. At the top of the mountain, take a rest in the giant blue chair. You’ll have a clear view of the Sangres to the east and the lab below—but that doesn’t mean you'll know what’s going on down there.

Los Alamos by the Numbers

(judging criteria for Outside’s Best Towns index)

  • Population: 18,191
  • Income: $124,335
  • House price: $296,597
  • Unemployment: 3.9%
  • Acres of greenspace within city limits: 84
  • Number of farmer’s markets and how many hours each are open: 1; 5.5 hours/week
  • Miles of trails in the city limits (paved an unpaved): 63
  • Number of breweries, yoga studios, and bike shops: 11
  • Miles of bike lanes within the city: 12.3

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Victory V's Don't Always Mean Victory

For years, we’ve been discussing the media’s role in distorting female body image. Dozens of studies and campaigns have fingered Photoshopped images in women’s emotional, mental, and physical health issues. Well boys, it seems your time has come. The pressure to look good, bulk up, and build a "six-pack," the supposed stamp of ideal male form, is gnawing away at your happiness, too, and prompting Reddit-topping threads and five-figure play-count videos. The question is: What are you gonna do about it?

Let’s back up a sec to look at just how bad the body image crisis is. A 2012 survey of 394 British men found that more than "half of men questioned (58.6 percent) said that body talk affects them personally, mostly in a negative way," with "beer belly" and "six pack" being two of the most popular terms men use to describe each other’s appearance. Even more disturbingly, more than 35 percent of men surveyed "would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape."

Well get ready to add that year back to your life, men, because "there really isn’t an ideal," says John Haubenstricker, a Research Associate in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also a dietitian, coach, and bodybuilding competitor. "Is there an ideal fruit or an ideal car? No. We need to change our terminology. What we should focus on more is: what is the healthy weight people should be at?"

There’s no magic formula for healthy weight. Body Mass Index, often used to help determine healthy weight ranges in the general population, might not be as applicable to athletes who often carry more muscle mass than the average person.

"A good description of healthy weight," Haubenstricker says, "is where you have the lowest risk for death and illness, and where it’s maintainable within your lifestyle." That means you’re not overweight, which can set you up for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, among other things. And that means you’re not underweight either.

{%{"quote":""What we should focus on more is: what is the healthy weight people should be at?""}%}

The images you see in the media of men with six-pack abs and "victory-v’s," Haubenstricker says, are often shot when those guys are at their absolute leanest. "Maintaining that level of leanness [around four to five percent bodyfat] isn’t typically recommended for very long," Haubenstricker says. "You’re not getting enough energy to do all of the things you want to do and improve" your fitness. "You’re also increasing your risk of injury."

As Scientific American explains, "fat is crucial for normal physiology—it helps support the skin and keep it lubricated, cushions feet, sheaths neurons, stores vitamins, and is a building block of hormones."

In other words, that "ideal" you constantly see splashed across magazine covers is bullshit. It’s an ephemeral state of being even for the people in the photos.

It’s going to take a long time for society to stop shoving that muscled-up ideal down men’s throats. As Eva Wiseman wrote in the Guardian:

The media is a construction—this is no secret. Magazines, film, TV, newspapers—they all rely on advertising. So reminding ourselves that the body types we see represented are the body types that generate purchases. Asking ourselves: "Am I being sold something here?"

The answer is almost always yes. Diet pills. Diet programs. Workout DVDs. Ab rollers. You name it. All of those things generate billions of dollars in sales by making men feel inadequate. If you believed you looked perfectly great as you are, you wouldn’t need any of those things—why fix what isn’t broken?

"Our culture has to change to be more tolerant" of different body types, Haubenstricker says. His suggestion? Start changing your terminology and perspective by checking out resources from EatRight.org and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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How Water Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Successful

This month, California biologist and former Outside cover subject Wallace J. Nichols publishes his first book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown, $27).

Billed as a “Big Idea” book that will change the way you think, Nichols’s debut effort combines everything from neuroscience to real estate pricing. (A full review is available in the August issue.) Abe Streep caught up with Nichols to discuss the book and how water can impact human happiness.

OUTSIDE: In the book you’re breaking down very complex science. You’re also combining anecdotal reporting throughout the world, real estate prices, and how-to journalism, suggesting ways in which people can improve their lives. What was the process of putting it together like?
NICHOLS: I read a book somewhere that said that writing a book is like creating a sculpture. This felt like creating a sculpture from water. As you mention, it’s writing a book about the brain, which is the most complex thing we know in the universe, and water, which produces life in the universe, and combining those two things—well, it’s a broad topic to say the least. I wrote the title as a placeholder and its subtitle as an outline. Then it was just about going out and finding the best researchers and some great protagonists. And making sure that they were not all surfers. Although, of course, there are several. 

In the book you constantly refer to the ocean as a great healer for many societal ills. How? 
The big conversation is the “red mind” vs. “blue mind” comparison. We live our indoor lives and our workspace lives and our family lives often in what I call a “red-mind” mode. We’re overstimulated, we’re captivated, we’re connected, we’re stressed. We’re behind. We’re trying to catch up. We’re out of money. We’re at deadlines. And we’re surrounded by screams.

Stress isn’t new, but this kind of chronic, constant stress is. Every medical doctor knows that stress is connected to disease. Diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. So reducing that stress in some way is useful. There are a lot of conversations going around about different kinds of meditation. Sometimes the word meditation isn’t used—different relaxation techniques.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/wallace-j-nichols-ocean_fe.jpg","align":"right","size":"small"}%}

Athletes use them all the time to reach peak performance. And I’d just add that being by water meditates you. It puts you in that relaxed state. You don’t need to study or practice meditation. You just need to pay attention to the water around you. You can do it in the bathtub, the hot tub, the swimming pool, the creek, the lake, the river, the ocean.

When you unplug and let go, disconnect from a clock altogether, you do what neuroscientists call mind wandering. Rather than data crunching, you’re letting things come and connect. You’re letting innovation happen. We see over and over, people say, ‘This is where I get my best ideas—when I let my brain do that.’ And a lot of times there’s water involved.

You run an annual Blue Mind conference, in which you bring together conservationists, water advocates, and neuroscientists to discuss the ocean’s effect on the brain. How is it working? Do you meet skepticism among the scientific community?
Social neuroscience continues to expand. Neuromarketing is now happening. Executives at Google are having neuroscientists come in and teach them how to be innovative. The greatest source of happiness, of relaxation, [and] of mental stimulation is the outdoors. And we’re still behind. There are people looking into it, through brain-on-nature questions.

But we’re late to the game. There’s a conference I attend every year on neuroscience and music. It’s the eighth year of that conference. There’s Blue Mind, but there’s not an equivalent gathering of neuroscientists and people who are interested in the future of wild places. I still don’t get the buy-in from the ocean community. I think part of it is neuroscience is just a big, hairy difficult, intellectually challenging field. And some people just don’t like to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Instead of saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ they just kind of roll their eyes.

You’re organizing a conference, publishing a book. You have to talk to people like me. How do you create the time to meander in your own life?
I’m certainly not the guru on the rock on the top of the mountain saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, I’ve got this nailed.’ I’m living the red-mind, blue-mind roller coaster right along with the people who will read this book. I benefit greatly from being by the ocean and living next to a creek. It’s called Mill Creek. I hear it every morning, and I go to sleep to its sound every night. What I’ve learned is to pay attention to that. It’s a creek, it’s beautiful. You see the fish come up the creek after a rain. You know that in a few hours the creek is emptying into the Pacific Ocean. All those things you pay attention to. 

Did one anecdote from your reporting surprise you particularly?
I can hang it all on one story. This guy named Bobby Lane, who served in the Gulf, had three different traumatic brain injury episodes. He came back to Texas with his world upside down. He was not speaking clearly, suffering from post-traumatic stress, being overmedicated, becoming addicted to those medications. He lost the desire to live. He tried to commit suicide through what he called “death by cop.” Which is essentially when you do something that gets the cop to come and kill you. Because as a warrior, he said he couldn’t do it himself.

So he tried that, and they shot him with rubber bullets, which really pissed him off, and really hurt, and really messed him up. He ended up going and doing something called Operation Surf, an experimental fringe program for people like him [in Santa Cruz]. He came to Santa Cruz and he had an experience: three tries and he was standing up on his board. Then he saw his life ahead. After having the experience he decided that he wanted to stay around and to live. 

What’s next for Blue Mind?
The goal is to increase perceived value of healthy oceans and waterways. If realtors were to knowledgeably and consciously sell the cognitive and emotional benefits of water, they would become the front line communicators for healthy water.

If health practitioners are saying, ‘I’m prescribing a walk on the beach and a surf session and half the dose of those pills,’ they’re sharing the blue-mind message. That’s the idea. What the environmental movement typically does is say, ‘Here’s something you’re doing that you shouldn’t do. I’m going to tell you why and probably make you feel bad.’ That’s not always the best place to start a conversation. We’re [saying], ‘Here’s something about you that you should know that you don’t know.’

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