The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Exploration

The Mobile Hostel Bus of Your Powder-Hound Dreams

For those of us who just want to hit the slopes, finding ideal lodging can be a painstakingly annoying afterthought. Optimal pricing and amenities can make or break a ski trip—hotels with the right mix of affordability, flexibility, and comfort aren't easy to find and can easily tie you down. Fear no more: A successful Indiegogo campaign has got you covered.

Yesterday, a Belgian-based group raising money for what they call "the Nomads Bus"—a mobile hostel designed to shuttle lodgers to the best powder in Austria, Switzerland, and France—closed its Indiegogo effort after surpassing its goal of 20,000 euros in about six weeks. Spearheaded by two self-described nomads named Val and Tim, the fundraising drive raised 23,115 euros—that's more than $31,000 for our stateside readers—which should be more than enough to bring the Nomads Bus to fruition.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/swiss-alps-nomadbus.jpg","size":"large","caption":"The Nomads Bus will travel Europe in search of the best skiing destinations—options include Austria, France, and Switzerland (pictured)."}%}

Where will the money go? For starters, Val and Tim plan to buy and ship a 40-foot school bus from Florida to Belgium. That's right, the bus your kids dread getting onto in the morning could soon be shuttling thrill seekers to the best powder in Europe. From there, they plan to spend the summer renovating the bus with their friends, but in the greenest, most cost-effective way possible.

Still, the costs are expected to add up: 3,000 euros for a solar system, 4,000 for a wood stove, 1,000 for a compost toilet, and so on. It all comes back to the campaign's goal: to create an awesome adventure experience that's also not for profit, eco-friendly, carbon neutral, and sponsored by small indie brands.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/nomad-schoolbus.jpg","size":"large","caption":"Let's Be Nomads announced on June 2 that it had found its dream bus: this Thomas school bus in Tennessee."}%}

Getting in on the fun shouldn't be too tough if you're willing to shell out a little cash. Donors who committed upwards of 350 euros to the Indiegogo page got first dibs but didn't come close to filling all the slots. The Nomads Bus hosts five guests at a time and offers multiple packages, all currently discounted:

  • For 50 euros (currently 40) per night, you can purchase the "Super Flexible Package," which allows you to choose as many nights as you want but forgoes many amenities.
  • For 399 euros (currently 349), you can purchase the "Short Stay Package," which gets you four nights of the basics plus a three-day ski pass, daily organic breakfasts and dinners, and one transfer to another resort.
  • For 749 euros (currently 649), you can purchase the "All-In Week Package," which nets you a seven-night trip with a six-day ski pass, organic breakfasts and dinners, pickup and dropoff at the Innsbruck train station or airport, sheets, towels, and private ski lessons. 

But there's more! If cold weather isn't your thing, the bus plans to continue operating in the summer, when it'll cruise along the Atlantic coast as a mobile wave-chasing hostel for avid surfers.

Find out more about the campaign and how to sign up through the Nomads Bus Indiegogo page.

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Learning to Love the Sounds of the Amazon

“Whoah! Did you hear that?!” our 12-year-old son, Skyler, exclaimed.

“Yeah. Sounds like a 250-pound man doing a cannonball,” my husband, Peter, guessed.

We were taking a rest inside our floating cabin at the Uacari Lodge in the Brazilian Amazon. Connected by a boardwalk were five thatched bungalows, a two-story central house, and some outbuildings, each on their own raft, floating on a tributary of the Rio Solimoes. In front of the main house a square hole had been cut through the deck to create a pool. A netted pool. That was a good thing. We’d soon find out what we could have been swimming with. It was rapidly becoming clear that we were in territory where the wildlife ruled.

Great “ka-thunk” sounds were happening all around us. Hurrying out onto the porch, we saw a finned tail curl and whiplash the surface of the water. It belonged to a Pirarucu, a ten-foot-long fish that we’d seen in the market in Manaus, the one whose scales are sold for fingernail files. It was coming up to breathe. In addition to gills, Pirarucu have a swim bladder allowing them to extract oxygen from the air. This unusual adaptation to oxygen-poor water in the Amazonian floodplains would seem to be an advantage, but instead it required, every few minutes, what appeared to be a thrashingly desperate act of survival.

But the “ka-thunks” weren’t the only strange sound here in the Mamiraua Eco Reserve (the first of its kind in the state of Amazonas). There was that low otherworldly roar, like an icy wind howling through cavernous medieval halls; Red Howler Monkeys marking their territories, constantly it seemed.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/Uacari-Lodge-Mamiraua-Eco-Reserve.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Dark skies above the Uacari Lodge in Mamiraua Eco Reserve."}%}

We didn’t see the Caimin until the next day, when they surrounded our shallow-sided canoe. The semi-submersion—revealing only two nostrils, followed a foot or more away by two glassy eyes and a strip of scaly back—is part of what gives them their stealthy quality, but really I think it’s their glide; that pulse-less swimming, the skimming silence of it.

We went out again in a motorboat that night. In the dark, Eduardo—one of two English-speaking, biology students from Southern Brazil who were our main guides—scanned the river with a powerful flashlight, looking for obstacles in the water. The eyes of the Caimin, those trench-coated undercover agents, glowed red.

“I counted 13 that time,” whispered Skyler.

Despite this, the reserve is a tranquil place. A place where there is a lot of hunting going on, quiet, focused hunting. A lot of stalking, a lot of stillness. It's surprising to see how fast the Caimin can cruise because more often they seem to be stopped, probably knowing it’s the motion that gives them away. But they're not the only ones on the prowl. The Anhinga, an underwater diving bird, paddles silently with webbed feet, then unexpectedly slides backwards under the water, to emerge somewhere else, neck first, actually only the neck, a pulsing, snake-like periscope. The elegant Egrets ride, tall and white, on electric- green floating meadows, still lives on a conveyor belt of tall grass, waiting, watching.

Between the hulking, carnivorous Pirarucu, the diving Anhinga, plummeting Kingfishers, strafing Large-billed Terns, and stealthily cruising Caimin, being a small fish in the Amazon must be risky business. I wondered where we fit in. I felt pleased our kids were seeing a world where we were, as humans, so clearly not in charge.

I yearned to sit in the hammocks on our porch and immerse myself in the quiet, but we had a schedule. Up at six, out by seven, back by twelve, lunch, out at three, back by seven, dinner, after-dinner activity.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/Skyler-and-Molly-check-out-the-Uacari-Lodge-pool.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":"Skyler and Molly check out the Uacari Lodge pool."}%}

When Bianca, our other guide, said the purpose of the night walk was “to experience the night life” I laughed. Sounds like a party in Salvador. I love walking in woods at night, eyes wide, ears open, antennae alert. At least I had until here, when I heard the guide urgently hissing, “muito venenoso, venenoso.” It doesn’t take any language skill to figure out what that means when it’s attached to “Cobra!” I was in the front, behind the local guide, when he spotted the snake by the side of the path with his flashlight. I couldn’t really tell you what it looked like since I was mostly backing up, “rapidamente” as I’d been instructed to. He had that excited, tight sound in his voice that you don’t question. “Sirucucu, sirucucu!” Funny, that was the snake, the Fer-de-lance, also known as a Pit Viper, also known as the most venomous snake in the Amazon, that we’d just been talking about, our 16-year-old daughter, Molly, and I.

Paddling our canoe earlier that afternoon, Molly's and my Portuguese-speaking, local-village guide, Almir, said off-handedly that he’d been bitten by a Pit Viper twice that year. Then he went on to describe its behavior. Could it really swim? Jump into a canoe?! Climb trees, do double back flips….? We weren’t really sure we understood, but that's what we thought he'd said. Later, talking to Bianca, we sorted it out. It’s the Anaconda, another friendly local, that can climb trees and hop into your canoe. This one, the Sirucucu, just kills you. Almir had got the anti-venom in time, but was still unable to walk, for a month; its venom had paralyzed his legs. So that night, when we were invited to come forward for a look, I declined; unlike Molly, Skyler and Peter.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/Skyler-exploring-the-Varzea-forest.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Skyler exploring the Varzea forest."}%}

That morning, we’d visited a village down the river. A woman there had told us how she’d seen an Anaconda, at the edge of the water, already fully wrapped around a calf, starting to constrict it. She’d dashed into the river to free it. Now would that be your first instinct?! The Anaconda had bitten her (she showed us the marks) and then had been unable to extract its curved teeth from her arm. Her husband seeing that she was in trouble dashed into the water, too, and having no knife, bit the snake. I know, it’s starting to sound like a tall tale. The calf lived.

They all have stories like that. You start to believe them when you walk back to your bungalow after lunch and find a baby Caimin—a mere four-feet long—sunning itself on the flotation logs of your cabin.

Now, our night guide was shining his light into a tree trunk. I’d dropped back safely into the middle of the pack. Something like “Carangeira” was whispered along the line. “Tem muitos nomes.” “It has lots of names.” It turned out “Tarantula” was the one I recognized. By the time I got up to the tree, she had slid back into her white pocket of a house, only a few of her long, furry black legs still stuck out, yellow on the tips. She’d done her nails.

Given that I grew up with a father who had a phobia for snakes and a mother with a phobia for spiders, this was not shaping up to be my kind of a stroll. I can’t tell you much about the canopy at night, or the symphonic sounds of insects, as my eyes and ears were pretty solidly focused, okay glued, to the ground.

We did stop once, however, to listen. And the plethora of sounds were amazing. Like a percussion section, the cicadas played a steady blanket of 16th notes on high-pitched triangles; frogs, the washboard quarter notes, and toads, the low belching whole note. An occasional rapid-fire rattle skimmed the surface. Here was a little of Salvador after all. Soon afterward, we spotted the lights of the lodge through the trees. I was happy to return to our floating boardwalk. I’d take the “ka-thunks” in the night any day. My kids, however, had been unperturbed.

I was, nevertheless, pleased to have ventured into that other world; that Halloween night world of spiders and snakes, and to have had a small taste of what it might be like to live on a more even playing field with those creatures who are after all mostly just defending themselves against those out to get them—the likes of us. I felt glad that my kids could experience a world so unlike our Western one where we humans "monitor" and "control" the wildlife. I was grateful to be admitted as a guest in their house.

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Cloudy Days on Everest

Each spring for the past 21 years I have been going to Nepal. And each spring since the 1920's mountaineers have made their way to the Himalayas to climb, discover and test the limits of their abilities—each with his or her own hopes and motivations. Sherpa climbers who lead the expeditions first visit their monasteries to do divinations and obstacle-removing prayers ahead of the precarious journey they are about to partake in.

It is a spring rite which takes place in Sherpa households across the Himalayas and now the world—partly via Skype in New York and California. If the gods answer their prayers, the men will return in mid-May with smiling broad faces burnt from exposure to the sun—and the spoils of their hard work. They're home safe and will replenish physically and spiritually until the fall when they must go back to work again.

{%{"quote":"The long-running exploitation of the climbing Sherpa was exposed by the horrific April 18 avalanche. This epic disaster has had worldwide impact. Will it last?"}%}

As our plane banks right over the Bay of Bengal, I look through the window to get a glimpse of the Himalayas, and see Chomolungma—Mother Goddess of the World—Sagarmatha, better known to the outer world as Mt. Everest. I am not sure why, but even from the safety of the plane I am anxious, happy, restless and am overcome by emotions with this glimpse of Everest—the huge majestic black rock which takes center stage perched above all other great mountains. I wonder who is out there, and if anyone is on the summit today. I look through a set of binoculars and imagine they are powerful enough to see people climbing. I pray that the weather does not change.

I was fortunate to be with Sir Edmund Hillary on a similar flight in 2003 when we took off from Kathmandu en-route to London as part of the 50th Everest Anniversary celebrations. The weather was clear and the pilot made a special effort to get us close to Everest. I remember Sir Ed looking through the window with his distinctive smile, pointing out the villages he had walked through that lead up to Khumbu. Knowing Sir Ed, he was probably thinking of a new route or how he could make a school building larger so more children would have the opportunity to study.

On my trip last month, however, the entire Himalayan range including Everest was shrouded in clouds. I could not begin to imagine the magnitude below of the sorrow, the angst, the pain felt across the funerals of the 16 who died in this year's avalanche, plus another Sherpa who had died two weeks prior.

Two things stand in sharp contrast for me in the aftermath of this tragedy. On the bright side, the global support and sympathy for the families has been overwhelming. In the eyes of the world Sherpas have always been proud, easy going and hardworking people. Over the years Sherpas have also been seen as the ones doing the hard work but seldom getting the credit. And their tragedies on the slopes of Everest have played out time and again. In the past three years alone, 24 Sherpa guides have perished on Everest. 

The long-running exploitation of the climbing Sherpa was exposed by the horrific April 18 avalanche. All of a sudden climbing Everest is not as cool any more. This epic disaster has had worldwide impact. Will it last? My personal hope is that anyone who wishes to climb Everest or any other mountain in the future will have a clearer understanding first of the economics of their choice. 

Although the Government of Nepal is an easy target and has become the punching bag in the past month for the grievances, standing in the shadows are expedition operators who profit handsomely. They marginalize and at times intimidate climbing Sherpas, most of whom have little education and no one who speaks for them. 

The Sherpas often are pawns in this deadly game that operators have no interest in changing. The climbing Sherpas know that if they raise any issue about pay, life insurance, and the heavy loads they carry or the great risks they bear for expedition clients, they and other family members might be blackballed when jobs are assigned for the next climbing season. 

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Kathmandu a week after the tragedy, I was shocked to hear several Everest operators express a total lack of empathy for what happened. "We have to live, too, and will need to pass any higher costs on to the western operators," one told me when I asked why salaries aren’t more equitable for the climbing Sherpas. He blamed the Nepali Government for any injustice.

I had to remind him that life insurance provided by operators for a climbing Sherpa in 1971 would be equal to $45,000 in today’s dollars, yet the families of those Sherpas who died on April 18 are to receive a meager $11,000. Nothing more. This is barely enough to pay funeral expenses and a couple years of school fees. Then what will these families do? 

An acquaintance of mine contacted nine Everest tour operators in the U.S. by telephone after the disaster. Could they do anything to help the dozens of parents, spouses and children who had just lost their sole bread-winner? Most answered that they were doing the best they could, but offered no specifics. Two had set up funds for the Sherpa families. Neither would they even speculate about how this disaster might change their business practices.

At the core of what I call Everest Inc. is the climber, the ultimate enabler of this exploitation. The numbers of casual, recreational adventurers on Everest have soared in recent decades. Anyone hoping to join their ranks now should be willing to ask hard questions both of themselves and the expedition companies they might choose.

Would they be able to look into the eyes of a climbing Sherpa's newborn child, then assure his family their conscience is clear about how this father, husband, uncle or brother will be compensated and protected? Do those agreed terms sufficiently recognize the great dangers the guides must face? Do the climbers understand the ethics of their choices?

On Thursday May 29th, we mark the 61st anniversary of the historic first ascent of Everest. Indelibly linked in our memories is an enduring symbol of the human spirit - the iconic image of a man in a mask - my father, Tenzing Norgay—standing tall on top of the world with clear blue skies as far as eyes can take you. That image will be clouded over quickly, replaced by more photos of funerals and grieving families, if things don't change.

Norbu Tenzing Norgay is a vice president of the American Himalayan Foundation, and the eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit Everest.

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9 Car Camping Upgrades

Despite what some preppers might have you to believe, the most popular form of camping in the U.S. has nothing to do with eating bugs or building your own makeshift shelter. That’s right: most of us will drive right up to our campsite this summer with all our gear stowed in the trunk. And hey, you’re not roughing it, so why not go the extra mile to turn that site into a luxurious base camp? The following nine products will help.

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