The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Exploration

Law and Order at 17,500 Feet

For the entirety of its existence, Base Camp on Mount Everest has been self-policed. No more. After last year’s brawl on the Lhotse Face, in which European alpinists Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith clashed with a group of Sherpas fixing ropes, Nepal’s tourism ministry has decided to step in. Come April, a nine-member armed security contingent made up of Nepali soldiers and police will keep order in the temporary city, which swells to nearly 1,000 people during peak climbing season.

“By the time the first expedition team arrives in Base Camp, our group will be in place,” says Maddhu Sudan Burlakoti, a joint secretary of the tourism ministry. “The team will ensure security of the climbers and also get involved in rescue operations. We’ll also make sure that, in the case of such an incident, the accused doesn’t get away.” 

Will this sort of warning, and the presence of a police force, have any tangible effect? It seems unlikely. Most of the action on Everest takes place higher up on the mountain. Last year’s brawl occurred at Camp II, nearly 4,000 vertical feet above Base Camp. 

“Unless the soldiers or police officers are trained as climbers, they won’t be on the mountain,” says RMI guide Dave Hahn. “That fight was a sorry little episode, but this won’t do anything to prevent another one above Base Camp.”

So what’s the point? Many Everest vets consider the force to be little more than a publicity stunt engineered to stave off negative media attention. Everest expeditions, after all, add roughly $15 million annually, from permit fees and general spending, to Nepal’s struggling economy.

“Everest gets headlines every year,” says Hahn, “but I worry that this is just another layer of bureaucracy from a country having a hard time keeping the lights on in Kathmandu.”

“It will be business as usual,” says Russell Brice, founder of Himalayan Experience. “Everyone will work around the new rules, and very little will change.”

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A South African Spring Break to Remember

The cheetah's unflinching stare bore into my seven-year-old son. It seemed to be assessing him as it would a baby gazelle, already salivating at the prospect of that succulent, white meat. I never knew how much my protective, mother lioness instincts would kick in. But then I'd never seen a cheetah draw a bead on my son.

Cheetahs can run 60 miles an hour, and accelerate from zero to 68 mph in three seconds, faster than a Lamborghini. But they can be out run by a man over time. I know all this because my son, Skyler, was infatuated with cheetahs. This is how we found ourselves at the Ann van Dyk cheetah rehabilitation center outside Pretoria, South Africa. We were on spring break during our year living in Mozambique and knew we needed to design a trip around our seven- and ten-year-old kids. Otherwise, we might strangle each other.

The center's staff had carefully embedded Skyler in the center of the open-sided safari bus saying it was possible, had he been sitting on the edge, that the free-roaming cheetahs could mistake him for a tasty morsel. I didn't doubt they were right. As we left they instructed us, and Skyler in particular, not to make any sudden moves to prevent the cheetahs from springing and hitting their exceptionally light skulls on the chain link fence, and cracking them. We carefully crept away, newly in awe of their predatory power.

Driving our rented van (our claptrap jeep had broken down yet again), through the Karoo Desert to Capetown we found ourselves in Southern California, or that's how it felt after Mozambique. Minimalist, white condos perched over sparkling water, against brilliant blue skies; bouncers manned the doors of neon-lit nightclubs; pizzerias opened onto sun-baked patios and potted palms. In other circumstances, Peter and I would probably have found a spot with a view and settled in, wiling away the morning over coffee, sliding into a tantalizing East Indian lunch, slipping into an evening of wine and tapas until we melted back into bed. And, given a few more days, we'd probably have started working.

Well that was not going to happen; not with kids in need of entertainment. Instead, we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and skidded down a vertiginous, 3,500-foot ravine via stone stairs and dirt trails; we waited in interminable lines to plummet down the Ratanga-Junction-amusement-park waterfall in a plastic log and dangle upside down in the open air from a hundred-foot high roller coaster (the previous group of riders had been stuck there for a full five minutes, but our daughter Molly was not about to bail); and we drove twenty-nine miles out the Cape Peninsula to commune with African penguins. This was only the beginning.

Two days later, we found ourselves dangling again, this time more than one hundred feet up in the air from a zip line in Tsitsikamma Park along the Garden Route.

"Mom, you should look down. It's so cool!" Skyler eagerly urged me on. He looked ready to spill out of his oversized harness into the treetops below. But he probably would have thought that was fun!

He didn't seem to realize that if I had looked down, I'd have frozen to my little tree platform, paralyzed, as the others continued zig-zagging trunk to trunk, 1,000 meters down to the coast, dragging a gloved hand for a brake on the cable above so as not to slam into the next tree. Skyler's hands were so small they had to fasten the giant, adult-sized glove around his wrist with a rubber band.

Our next stop, Durban, boasts of an inordinate number of Great White sharks, so many that the city has sunk enormous nets so that people can swim off the beaches. But if that feels too tame, you can be dropped into shark-infested waters in a tiny cage for a heart-pumping, adrenaline-boosting, extra-close-up encounter; a prospect our kids found enchanting. We found it so sketchy we headed to the land-bound uShaka Marine World instead. Luckily, they quickly forgot the allure of shark jaws as they defied gravity, flipping in pulley-rigged harnesses for a few rand a ride.

The choice of our next destination was driven by Peter and me, though still by children's fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had been one of our favorite childhood series. Hearing Tolkien had grown up near the Drakensberg Mountains, we went in search of the Shire. Sure enough the thatched Zulu huts became round, and the hills started rolling until they rose into the not-so-distant, plenty forbidding mountains of "Mordor." Bedding down for a few nights at Didima Camp in our own thatched hobbit hut, we hiked up into goblin caves and found on their walls not the tracings of goblins but the remarkably clear San people paintings of running animals and spear-toting men from as long as 2,400 years ago.

Two weeks later, we picked up our jeep with its rebuilt engine and putted back over the border into Mozambique, tired but exhilarated. Although I might have liked more coffee houses and wine bars, nine years later that vacation still rates as one of the best. Our kids kept us moving, so that insidious magnet, work, didn't have a chance to suck us back in. And they forced us to be enterprising, to find active things to do. By the end, we felt rejuvenated by the physical activity and had got a real mental break. Thanks kids—for your contagious energy, your eyes-wide wonder, your curiosity about everything. You can design a trip anytime.

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Mountain Biking the Himalayas: The Annapurna Circuit

The hill just kept on going, and going, and going. Because that’s what hills do in the Himalaya. And the hill was headed my direction—down—through one of the deepest canyons in Nepal and some of the most extravagantly beautiful vistas in the world. And I was ripping through the landscape fast enough to make my eyes water.

An hour-and-a-half downhill mountain bike ride sounded unbelievable after more than a week of solo hiking, tethered to a backpack, on the Marsyangdi River portion of the Annapurna Circuit and across the 18,000-foot Thorung La Pass. And so there I was, flying down the Himalaya, dirt and a smile plastered to my face.

For purists at least, the completion in the past few years of a “jeepable” road from Pokhara to Muktinath, Nepal, has spoiled what some call the greatest trek in the world. But for mountain bikers, the new road can only be one thing: an increasingly massive draw. And for me, with an injured knee, the ride down the Kali Gandaki river valley was a no brainer.

Mountain biking is only a recent option for hikers trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Although small numbers of visitors have ridden the whole route on their own, outfitters have only recently begun to crop up. In 2011, Jurriaan Prakke and Tenzin Thakali started Muktinath-based Mustang Mountain Bikes. Situated at more than 12,000 feet, Muktinath is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the world for both Hindus and Buddhists.

Conveniently, you can rent Giants, Treks, and Montras with both front and dual suspension for the two- to three-day ride from Muktinath to Tatopani, or an epic five-day ride down to Pokhara. The outfit even transports your pack and gear from Muktinath down to your destination and supplies you with a helmet and a daypack.

In short, if you’re not worried about the speed, or of the drop-offs, or of feeling like you’re cheating the Annapurna Circuit by not trekking the whole thing, then this is the freest you’re going to feel during your trip. 

Because this is a relatively new option, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t forget to set aside the essentials for your daypack when preparing your main backpack for shipment down the mountain: windbreaker, hydration pack, passport, money, socks, underwear, toothbrush, silk sleeping bag liner, fleece (it gets cold at night), and sunglasses.
  • Check your bike over before setting out and ask for a repair kit and extra break pads. Some of the down hills are decently serious and, although it’s not exactly a technical ride, there are steep bits.
  • Leave Muktinath early. The wind seems to be on a timer and starts really blowing at 9 a.m. Though the guidebooks warn of this, it’s a different animal on a bike. Bring along a bandana or something to cover your mouth and nose.
  • The road from Muktinath to Marpha takes about six hours, including a nice long lunch in the medieval fortress town of Kagbeni. From here, you can either do the steep ride back up to the main road and follow the busses (and dust) up over the steep, high bluffs, or ride down on the riverbed and be sandblasted when it turns into a wind tunnel at 9 each morning.
  • Hold out for Marpha. After more than an hour of wind in your face, you might be tempted to stay in the large town of Jomsom because you’ll have to stop here anyway to get your trekking passes stamped. But the much better choice is the small, pretty village of Marpha—about two more hours down a rocky road past some incredible peaks and valleys.
  • The second day of the ride to the hot springs at Tatopani is truly epic—and much more fun.You’ll pass from arid country, to high alpine, to dense forest, to jungle in the course of the day’s six-hour ride—much of it on fun down hills.
  • Leave around 6:30 a.m. and you’ll miss the wind and have time to stop for breakfast at a small roadhouse just past a beautiful pine forest around 9 a.m. Here you can watch as tired trekkers crammed into jouncing, beat up local busses pile out for fresh air and a bite to eat. That could have been you!
  • Get in touch with these guides. You can contact Jurriaan Prakke and Tenzin Thakali of Mustang Mountain Bikes at or or by phone on +9779817196197, +9779846585755, +9779857650143, or +9779756703013.
  • Or try other guides. Tsheten and his brother Ganesh run a second outfit that opened last season. They can be reached by email at at or by phone at +9779841259360+9779808654082, or +977014373152. Both shops are on Muktinath’s main drag, are near each other and hard to miss. A third bike rental shop is set to open in the 2014 trekking season.
  • A two-day ride from Muktinath to Tatopani will cost somewhere around $70, but it is money very well spent. Other options are available—such as Muktinath to Pokhara, and with or without a guide. 

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When An Explorer's Body Begins to Eat Itself

When an explorer is dying of starvation in the wild, his voice takes on a peculiar deep tone.

“We were all shocked at beholding the emaciated countenances of the Doctor and Hepburn,” wrote 19th century Arctic explorer John Franklin. “The alteration in our appearance was equally distressing to them... we were little more than skin and bone. The Doctor particularly remarked the sepulchral tone of our voices, which he requested us to make more cheerful if possible, unconscious that his own partook of the same key.”

Other strange physiological phenomena occur when the body is totally deprived of food, some that might be considered desirable, others not. The eyesight of one subject in a 1915 study improved dramatically on day 14 during a carefully monitored 31-day fast and was twice as acute at fast’s end as at the beginning. Others reported a peculiar lightness in their bearing. Heart rates can drop to 35 beats per minute. And there’s the nasty breath—breath that smells like a solvent such as acetone. 

These observations came from controlled studies of fasting. But the members of the expedition that I’m writing about, the Overland Party of John Jacob Astor attempt to found the first American colony on the West Coast, a kind of Pacific version of Jamestown, were not fasting. Rather, they were starving—they simply couldn’t find food—while traveling hard in winter’s cold, like Franklin’s party quoted above. Their caloric needs were enormous—as I wrote in my last blog posting, the energy demands of traveling hard on foot in winter can amount to an extraordinary 6,000 calories—or nine square meals—per day.

After abandoning their canoes, which had smashed among the waterfalls and rapids of a canyon, the 50-person Overland Party, led by Wilson Price Hunt, a young New Jersey businessman with no experience in the wilderness, split into two main groups in November, 1811. Trekking on foot, they followed the unknown river downstream toward what they hoped was the Pacific. Barren lava plains spread on both sides of the river gorge. With no game, and no fish appearing in their nets, they managed to trade with scattered bands of Shoshone Indians for a few dogs and horses. Consuming these—a group of 50 people trekking in winter could demolish the caloric equivalent of a large animal every few days, thus they traveled in two smaller groups—they chewed on bits of beaverskin and spare moccasins. Hunt stayed with the slower group, which included the family of the Indian interpreter, his pregnant wife, and their two toddler boys. 

For a month, Hunt’s group struggled onward along the river. Then the river poured into a massive canyon—now known as Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River, the deepest canyon in North America. One snowy December day, as Hunt’s slow party struggled downstream over rocky outcrops, they spotted the other main party staggering back upstream on the opposite bank! This was the worst kind of news. Led by Scottish fur trader Ramsay Crooks, it had been stopped by the extreme depth and ruggedness of the canyon and the onset of winter’s deepening snows. Still worse, Crooks and his party verged on collapse from starvation and exhaustion due to the tremendous exertion and caloric needs.

Hunt had a small boat crafted from a horsehide and brought Crooks and a voyageur, Le Clerc, across the river from the starving party on the opposite bank. Crooks told him there was no way forward down the canyon on foot or boat. Hunt knew he now had to retreat upstream in hopes of finding Shoshone villages and food. They were at least ten days or two weeks away. Even after Hunt fed Crooks and Le Clerc the last of his horsemeat, however, they were still too weak to walk and became feebler with every moment. Hunt, loyal to a fault, trying to lead by consensus, wanted to stay with the dying men. Crooks was his friend and partner. But the 20 other members of his party, the voyageurs especially, harangued him to abandon Crooks and Le Clerc and retreat as hastily as possibly to the Shoshone villages and the hope of distant food.

“They said that we would all die from starvation,” wrote Hunt in his journal, “and urged me by all means to go on.”

The process had now begun for everyone. 

The human body has a special mechanism to deal with starvation in these dangerous circumstances. A fascinating account on the physiology of human fasting can be found on the website Drawing on the classic 1970 study “Starvation in Man” by George F. Cahill, the website tells us that the human body, even when starving, wants to continue to feed nutrients to the brain, despite all else. The starving human body also tries to hold onto a certain reserve of ready energy for “fight or flight” or other emergencies.

Normally, the fuel driving our bodies is glucose (a simple sugar) and glycogen (glucose transformed and stored in the muscles). We constantly drain this fuel supply to power our muscle movements and metabolism. We refill this fuel supply through eating.

But under fasting conditions—starvation—the body makes a peculiar switch. The muscles and heart stop using up all the ready fuel—glucose and glycogen—saving some of it for emergencies, and start to draw on fuel made from the breakdown of the body’s fat reserves and what’s called “ketone metabolism.”

“The glycogen reserves in humans never get completely depleted,” according to the website. “There is at all times a hepatic [liver] reserve, waiting to mobilize and rescue the organism from some sort of horrible situation.”

But the brain has to function, too, in order to save the starving human from “some horrible situation.” The human body is remarkable among animals in that the human brain can function with alternative energy supplies to glucose. Some of the body’s fats are converted to what’s known as “ketone bodies,” which, only in humans, have the ability to enter the brain and power it. (The human brain of a 150-pound male requires about 325 calories a day, or the equivalent of about one-and-a-half energy bars, to keep the lights on.) Thus by switching over to alternative energy supplies like ketone bodies, the brain, too, helps save the body’s glucose reserves (as well as the body’s muscle mass) for emergency “fight or flight” situations like a kind of human rocket fuel.

The “acetone breath” of starvation or fasting comes from the metabolism of these ketone bodies into byproducts like acetone, which is then dissipated through urine and through exhalation from the lungs.

Eventually, however, as the fats are used up, the body will begin to break down its own proteins—its muscles and tissues—and convert them to fuel. (None of the physiology of starvation or fasting that I’ve read explains the deep voices such as Franklin’s, but I wonder if it has something to do with the proteins of the vocal cords breaking down. Maybe a reader will know the answer.)

“An organism which is consuming its own protein is truly struggling,” according to “That said, if your [human] organism is struggling it has some 6kg or so of protein to get through before it dies.”

Ramsay Crooks and the voyageur Le Clerc had clearly entered this protein-consuming phase of starvation, and had finally used up whatever rocket-fuel reserves they had possessed.

Hunt, deeply conflicted, profoundly troubled—were his loyalties to his good but dying men, or to his leadership of the group as a whole?—finally abandoned the starving pair in the canyon depths. But he didn’t forsake them entirely. He left them two beaverskins to chew on, and promised that as soon as he found food, he would send it back to feed them.

Peter Stark is a full-time freelance writer of non-fiction books and articles specializing in adventure and exploration history. His most recent book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire; a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, tells the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific Coast and will be published in March 2014 by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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The 25-Year-Old at the Helm of Lonely Planet

I'm supposed to go flying over New Zealand's South Island with the director of the world's largest guidebook company, but I'm feeling haggard. Last night, Daniel Houghton and I made a little tour of Queenstown's bars: Winnies, the Buffalo Club, Zephyr, a few other places. There was a retractable roof, a lot of Red Bull and vodka, dancing and yelling, and a video of a man in a wingsuit tearing through narrow canyons. I left the last place—I think it was the Boiler Room—before Houghton did. "I don't feel anything yet," he said, ordering another drink around 2:30 a.m.

But when I knock on his hotel room door at 7:30, Houghton, now 25, is chipper. The space is fastidiously organized: bed made, camera gear in one neat pile, North Face and J.Crew clothes in another. Houghton, who is six foot four and 150 pounds, with a long neck and blue eyes, has rewired the sound system in the room to allow him to play M83 and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack from his iPhone. As he waves me in, he's on the line with his boss, billionaire Brad Kelley, the former tobacco magnate who bought Lonely Planet last year, when the storied company was in the midst of a financial nosedive. Houghton wishes Kelley a happy birthday, then we're off to ride what's billed as the steepest tree-to-tree zip-line on earth.

Houghton is in New Zealand to relax. He has been at Lonely Planet's helm for nine months, during which time he has invested heavily in a digital revamp and laid off nearly one-fifth of the workforce. "It's hard to turn a cruise ship around, so we had to get in a lifeboat," he told me before we traveled to Queenstown. "A small one." He has also come to see how the sausage gets made, accompanying a writer and a photographer on assignment for the company's glossy British magazine. The itinerary includes rafting the Class IV Shotover River, hiking the famed Routeburn Track, drinking Pinot at top wineries, off-roading in Houghton's dream truck (a Land Rover Defender, not available in the U.S.), watching the sunset over Lake Wakatipu, and searching for the moa, an enormous flightless bird capable of disemboweling a man with a claw swipe. Scientific consensus says that the moa probably went extinct about 400 years ago, but that doesn't dissuade Houghton. A typical guidebook-reporting trip, he tells me, "would be boring."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Houghton shooting from a helicopter."}%}

A former wedding photographer, Houghton is documenting all this with his beloved GoPro for Lonely Planet's website. "We're paying people to survey the earth," he's told me a few times, "and that's awesome. But readers should have the full experience writers are having." 

After a quick drive from the hotel and a short gondola ride, we're at Ziptrek EcoTours' mountainside course. Our launch point is a wooden platform built among some massive beech trees 1,650 feet up a hillside, where we clip into our harnesses and make our way to the pièce de résistance: line six, the steepest in the world. Houghton makes the leap. He flies upside down, holding his GoPro in one hand, his free arm relaxed behind his head and his legs crossed above him, swami style. He reaches 45 miles per hour, then flips back over smoothly as he meets the far-off platform in the trees, where a cute Ziptrek operator compliments his style. "This is gonna be a really cool video piece," Houghton says with a smile.

Houghton grew up in a leafy Atlanta suburb. His parents worked for Delta Air Lines: Dan was a mechanic, Jean a flight attendant. The family flew for free, so Daniel visited 28 states by age 15. He liked anything fast—he started skiing at three—or high-tech. Dan thought he might have a pilot on his hands.

He was a middling student, but by tenth grade Houghton had discovered his real passion: photography. He enrolled in the photojournalism program at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and worked as a stringer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. At the Kentucky Derby, he twice captured the winning horse crossing the finish line, beating out older cameramen. He regularly skipped parties to be up and shooting at dawn. On breaks he flew standby to Argentina, France, and South Africa, where he photographed orphans with AIDS. Professors gushed about the maturity of his work, and Dan began to think that his son might someday shoot for National Geographic. Houghton interned at the Seattle Times and made the Sunday front page four times.

During his junior year, he interviewed at the Chicago Tribune. It went well, but then the Tribune began layoffs. Houghton graduated in 2010 with a major in photojournalism, a minor in entrepreneurship, and no dream gig. He married his college girlfriend, Susan, whom he'd met in the marching band. (He played Coldplay's "Postcards from Far Away" for her on piano before proposing.) Ultimately, Houghton landed at a small marketing agency in Bowling Green, shooting bank interiors. 

"I remember thinking, Damn, that's lame," says college friend Luke Sharrett, a photographer who has shot for The New York Times. After six months, Houghton quit the agency, filing for a business license the same day. He'd created a website for his work: Houghton Multimedia. Marketing jobs trickled in. He shot weddings on the side and made a little extra money as digital media adviser for WKU's student publications.

{%{"image":"","caption":""Sending one author to write about a vast place is antiquated," says Houghton."}%}

While Houghton was shooting a Bowling Green furniture company in May 2011, his cell phone rang. A local businessman who'd seen his website wanted to meet. Houghton showed up in jeans at a modest downtown office with no name on the door. He shook hands with three men and sat down. They watched some of Houghton's work on Vimeo—a video called "The Beauty of Digital Film," about his grandfather's film projector; a contracted piece on Auburn University's new athletic arena—and asked questions: How did you make it? What did it cost? Did you have help? He was pretty much a one-man show, he told them. They said little about the nature of their business but asked him to come back next week for a meeting with their boss.

This time, Houghton showed up in nicer clothes. In the lobby, he was greeted by a big red-bearded man: Kelley. A self-made billionaire raised on a nearby farm who'd dropped out of WKU, Kelley, 57, had earned the majority of his money from tobacco and was now the fourth-largest private landowner in the United States, with property in Tennessee, Wyoming, Florida, New Mexico, Kentucky, Texas, Colorado, and Hawaii. Kelley did most of the talking, mainly about new media but also travel, conservation, and music. At the end of the meeting, he made Houghton an offer: keep doing what you're doing, but work for me. It was a handshake agreement, no contract. He never asked Houghton his age. For the next year, Houghton helped found and run NC2 Media, Kelley's fledgling company, with a staff that topped out at five. NC2 is short for in situ, a Latin phrase meaning "in position." They launched OutwildTV, a website featuring sponsored expeditions—including a cowboy-journalist's 10,000-mile trip on horseback from Canada to Brazil, advertised as "one of the most daring journeys of the 21st century." They also produced a gear blog.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Brad Kelley."}%}

Less than a year later, Kelley saw an opportunity. Lonely Planet, the Melbourne, Australia, guidebook company, seller of 120 million books, was struggling. In 2007, the BBC had bought Lonely Planet from its founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, for $210 million. Profits had since cratered due to the global recession, appreciation of the Australian dollar, and the struggling book industry.

Kelley offered $77 million for the company and closed the deal on April 1, 2013. There was no search for a new boss; he'd already tapped Houghton to captain the sinking ship. A few weeks before closing, the president of BBC Worldwide, Marcus Arthur, announced the impending purchase. Houghton, who was less than three years out of college, made the rounds at Lonely Planet's international offices. In London, before he introduced himself, someone projected an image of the biblical scene of Daniel in the lion's den on a screen. 

"That pissed me off," he recalls, "but I tried not to show it." 

Staffers were predictably bewildered. "I figured there had to be more to the story than 'reclusive billionaire hires 24-year-old with no known experience to run the joint,' " a veteran Lonely Planet author e-mailed me. "But I think it's as silly and fucked-up as it sounds." 

Lonely Planet's largest office is still in Melbourne, but the de facto headquarters are now located in Franklin, Tennessee, a wealthy town of 65,000 described by its chamber of commerce as "fourteen miles and a hundred years from Nashville." In March 2012, Kelley bought a $24 million business complex there and placed NC2 Media in a 12,000-square-foot studio of a former stove factory. 

In October, two months before our New Zealand trip, I come for a visit. Houghton shows me his handsome corner office, a Restoration Hardware–inspired, compulsively organized aggregate of wood, leather, plasma screens, and family heirlooms. "We spent a lot of time putting this together," he says. By "we" he means himself and his father—the elder Houghton did the drywall himself. 

Today the CEO is wearing a denim jacket, skinny khakis, desert boots, Burberry glasses, a $4,200 Bell and Ross watch ("a gift to myself"), and enough hair gel to spike his Lincoln-esque frame to six foot five. He recently gave up on growing a beard. Houghton's desk is huge, made out of hundred-year-old French wood, and empty save for his computer and an odd adornment: a brass nozzle. "That's a fire-hose nozzle that Brad gave me," he says. "It's sort of an inside joke between us. Doing this work is like trying to drink from a fire hose. Business is moving all day, every day, in different time zones."

Some 400 e-mails met him when he arrived at 5:30 this morning—messages from Lonely Planet's other offices, in Melbourne, London, Beijing, Delhi, New York City, Los Angeles, and Oakland, California. His energy is high, boosted by a thermos of coffee. "You could argue that this is a bad time to get into the business," he says. "But I think otherwise. The best time to get into an industry is when it's in flux." Whether he learned this in college, heard Kelley proclaim it, or had an epiphany in the past 24 months—"since the early days," he says, not meaning to sound funny—it comes across with surprising authority.

Houghton is a technophile. He owns two iPads (both sizes), an iPhone 5S, an HTC One (unlocked), a Samsung Galaxy Note, a Microsoft Surface tablet, and a 13-inch MacBook Pro. He shows me his iPhone. "Check out this awesome app," he says of Fitbit. "It tells you how much you slept last night. I got five hours and forty-nine minutes! And 
I took 14,096 steps yesterday," he continues. "I love apps. Our challenge is to design one that will change the way people travel."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Houghton's library."}%}

His confidence seems natural. Then again, it doesn't hurt to have a billionaire backer. From the start, Kelley didn't make Houghton adhere to a budget. His guiding principle, according to Houghton: As much as necessary, as little as possible. "There are million-dollar decisions I can make without asking him," Houghton says of Kelley. "And $10,000 decisions I need to make with him." 

Though he consulted with Kelley, the layoffs were ultimately Houghton's call. Last July, a few months after NC2 took over the company, 75 of Lonely Planet's 383 full-time employees were made redundant. "I walked up in front of a microphone in Melbourne, where most of the redundancies occurred," he says, "and told them, 'Today is going to be a really tough day.' " The Internet rushed to write Lonely Planet's obituary; the hashtag #lpmemories took off on Twitter.

Among those laid off was longtime editor Suki Gear, along with her five-person publishing team in Oakland. "We all knew there was going to be an announcement," she recalls. A travel site called Skift had broken the news before Houghton. "We cried and we laughed," she says, "like in the movies." 

Many of those laid off were, like Gear, book editors. Houghton's not a print purist. "I woke up the other night thinking about digital publishing," he says, pacing his office. "I know we want to do a digital magazine. When I see opportunities, my instinct is to jump on them. Ripping a book's pages out and putting it in an e-book: We can do that, and it's great. But that's not a paradigm shift." He pauses. "We'll keep publishing books. We can make the crap out of books. And books are going to remain relevant to people who like to hold things."

I ask what the market research says about all that. "I didn't really look at it," he says, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "I don't really go with market research. I kinda go with my gut."

Lonely Planet's head of mobile products, Matthew McCroskey, 26, knocks. He resembles a young Steve Jobs: the glasses, the hair, the beard, the pallor. McCroskey was running his own mobile-consulting firm in Nashville when Houghton saw his website and hired him. They discuss a postcard app, which Houghton calls low-hanging fruit. Using reader-submitted photos, the app will offer a stream of postcard-style travel pictures for aspirational viewing on a smart device. Houghton shows me a few images on his iPad and suggests some design elements to McCroskey. "

We can get this knocked out in a week," he says. "Travel porn in time for Christmas!" 

This is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble beginnings of Lonely Planet. In the early seventies, a newlywed couple from England and Ireland took off on an adventure and wrote a how-to book about it for their friends, called Across Asia on the Cheap. Along with standard travel advice, Tony and Maureen Wheeler offered political and religious commentary, tips on dope ("Have your last drag before you get to the Iranian border"), and financial advice during emergencies ("Several places have a good price for blood"). It became the first Lonely Planet text in 1973. The company name came from Tony's mishearing of a lyric in Joe Cocker's "Space Captain": Once I was traveling across the sky/This lovely planet caught my eye. Lonely Planet found authors in bars. 

{%{"image":"","caption":"Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler in 1974."}%}

Before long, the company was dominating the guidebook market in the UK, Australia, and much of the rest of the world by, as former CEO Judy Slatyer says, "telling it like it is, without fear or favor." By 1999, it had sold 30 million guidebooks. As Lonely Planet pursued wealthier readers, it inevitably became more mainstream and flush. Authors enjoyed profit sharing and weeklong bacchanals in Australia on the company dime. These events culminated in a Christmas ball at the Melbourne office, to which authors were chauffeured in limousines. "The events were renowned for their scandals, brawls, and general tomfoolery," says longtime author and former publisher Ryan Ver Berkmoes. "In the morning, you'd tamp down your hangover by gleefully figuring out who'd slept with whom the night before. Utterly ridiculous, but very fun to live through."

Things changed after 9/11, as fewer people left home and the travel industry took a major hit. The growth of online publishing also hurt. Lonely Planet's profits suffered from 2001 to 2007. Then came the recession. Between 2007 and 2012, combined sales from the top five travel publishers fell from $125 million to $78 million. Online resources like TripAdvisor and Wikitravel gained ground as Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Frommer's, and others struggled to make a digital footprint. Lonely Planet soldiered on, creating an online forum for travelers called Thorn Tree and pursuing opportunities in television and burgeoning markets in Asia. By 2008, however, the parties were over and the books had lost even more of their signature spunk. "They were editing like every verb might have a bogeyman underneath," says Ver Berkmoes. "You couldn't say a town was bad."

"We should have moved much more aggressively into creating a digital space where travelers could engage, interact, write their own guides," says Slatyer, Lonely Planet's CEO at the time of the BBC purchase.

After the BBC bought the company from the Wheelers, it appeared to embrace a strategy of overspending and underimagining. "The BBC's culture is inherently conservative," says Vivek Wagle, Lonely Planet's director of editorial for digital platforms from 2004 to 2011. "It's tough to innovate." Tony Wheeler, watching his old company from the sideline, grew concerned. "If I have a single look-how-it-went-wrong pointer," he says, "it's TV. Lonely Planet made more television in the five years before the BBC's purchase than in the five years after."

Lonely Planet wasn't for sale when Kelley first approached the BBC, in April 2012. But the broadcasting corporation quickly made it clear that it would prefer to be unburdened of its investment. So why did Kelley buy? He didn't respond at first when I posed the question to him through Houghton—he famously avoids press attention—but those who know him insist that he doesn't make vanity purchases. Kelley, who says he has never smoked, founded tobacco company Commonwealth Brands in 1991 and sold it a decade later for $1 billion. He also owns Calumet Farm, a producer of thoroughbred horses, and a northern Colorado business park called the Center for Innovation and Technology. 

Houghton did much of the due diligence in preparation for the Lonely Planet purchase. By December 2012, he felt that he was going to have a major role in the takeover. A month later, they were sitting in the Franklin office. Kelley said, "There's something important I need to ask you. Do you need to be liked?" Houghton replied, "Well, I want to be liked." 
"That's not what I asked," Kelley said. "I don't need to be liked," Houghton said. "Good," Kelley said. "Needing to be liked is a problem. As long as you understand that, this will be fun." Recalling that conversation now, Houghton says, "I became the director, 24 years old, and I go fire a bunch of people. They think I'm an idiot. It didn't make me popular. Brad prepared me for that. The guy is a fucking genius."

After repeated requests, Kelley finally consented to a written interview about Houghton's hire. Houghton mediated it, because Kelley doesn't use e-mail. It was one of the land baron's only interviews in the past decade and the only time he has spoken publicly about Lonely Planet. His answers totaled 118 words. He wrote, "Daniel has created his own opportunity. While we share some characteristics, such as drive and an ability to adapt, his superior organizational skills along with personal and communication skills have made him invaluable to the business." About that first meeting with Houghton, in Bowling Green, Kelley wrote: "Kismet. Simply put, a fortunate event."

Like most everyone else, Dan Houghton still wonders why exactly his son has been given such power. Kelley provided a clue when they met one day at NC2 headquarters. "Did Daniel tell you what I called him the other day?" Kelley asked, according to the elder Houghton. The Delta mechanic shook his head. "Well, I told him he's like a Mennonite. You just don't find that many young people who are so focused on becoming something."

Tony Wheeler used to have a routine in which he'd hold up his laptop, GPS, and cell phone and say, "Here's the guidebook of the future." Then he'd hold up a PalmPilot and continue, "All we have to do is squeeze it into this." The technology to do just that exists, of course, but neither Lonely Planet nor any of its competitors has got a handle on the squeezing yet. No one seems to know what, exactly, the guidebook of the future should look like. Google bought the U.S. company Frommer's in 2012 for a reported $23 million, announced plans to discontinue the print edition—then sold the company back to founder Arthur Frommer without explanation for an undisclosed amount. Since then, the publisher's biggest move has been releasing 30 significantly smaller guides this past winter. London-based Rough Guides is digitizing its entire travel catalog and acquiring author rights "for a fully flexible future," according to its publisher, Jo Kirby. Let's Go and Fodor's are doing much the same. But these are minor adaptations. "

I travel as often with digital guidebooks as print ones these days," says Wheeler, "but they're far from perfect. It's often way faster to find things in a book than on an iPad. And the batteries don't go flat." But is Houghton the guy to reinvent Lonely Planet? "If you're going to do something different," Wheeler says, "you better do it with somebody different. Certainly you don't want someone old and set in his ways—like me—at the controls. Is he the right 25-year-old? Jury is out on that one. He seems a nice guy."

Of course, there's a saying about nice guys. Some observers are skeptical that Houghton has the skills necessary to run a multinational business. One former editor, a victim of the layoffs who asked not to be named because he still freelances for the company, says, "Houghton's age isn't an issue, but his lack of experience is. Daniel has never run a company of any size before and has only a few years' experience of even being in the workforce. Kelley himself has never run any sort of content business or global company before. There has been no articulation of future strategy other than vague, empty phrases such as 'digital first.' "

Suki Gear, the former head of the Oakland office, worries that Lonely Planet will become like TripAdvisor—crowdsourced, free, often unreliable. "I hope they keep the authors," she says. "They're a goldmine. If they go with user-generated content, it's all over."

Still others think that the company will only succeed if it ditches books entirely. Last year, at the All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Myspace cofounder Chris DeWolfe approached Houghton and asked, "Are you the young guy running Lonely Planet?" According to Houghton, DeWolfe said that the company wouldn't succeed unless it moved to Silicon Valley. 

"I have great respect for him," Houghton says of DeWolfe, "but when he said that, I got even more amped about succeeding. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But what really frustrates me is when they say things that aren't true. People continue to claim that we're getting out of the content business. I'm like, What? That's not right at all."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Houghton at the company's Franklin, Tennessee headquarters."}%}

One day in his office, Houghton reveals a bit more about his content strategy, drawing a pyramid bisected by four horizontal lines on a piece of paper. In the top section he writes authors. "There aren't many of them," he says, "but they're really important." The next section says residents. It's followed by somewhat vague and overlapping categories: freelance, super fans, and online community. Some of these "content producers" will be paid. But most will not. 

"It's not perfect," he admits. "But the system of sending one author to write about a vast place is antiquated. And there's a lot more information we need to supply more quickly to remain relevant. We want the latest content, in real time."

That means apps. Lonely Planet's apps have been downloaded 11 million times, about the same number as Yelp. (Houghton wouldn't comment on the company's profits since he took over, but he says that digital now accounts for 30 percent of Lonely Planet's revenue.) In November, Lonely Planet purchased TouristEye, an app for planning trips and discovering new things to do while traveling. It was a six-figure deal, but not just for a cool app. Houghton was most excited about recruiting the talent behind it to help him answer what he and his team consider to be a billion-dollar riddle.

"Can you tell a traveler what he should be doing right now?" asks McCroskey. "Based on time of day and where he is and the weather and a million other factors? A lot of people have made headway in that space but hit a wall because they didn't have enough information. Well, we have tons of information—all of Lonely Planet's historic content. And we're building really great technology to analyze that content and understand all the ways you can put it together."

McCroskey then offers a concrete example of how the system will work: "You're in Rome, standing by the Colosseum. It's 3 P.M. on a Thursday in summer. You open your phone, and it says, 'Hey, glad you enjoyed the Colosseum, which was on the itinerary we helped you make. We know you love coffee. Time for a cappuccino! The best cappuccino place in Rome is two blocks away. Here are walking instructions. And while you're walking, you should know: Don't order a cappuccino in the afternoon in Italy; they only drink them for breakfast, and they're going to think you're a stupid American. So you should get a macchiato. And this is how you ask for it.'"

"If I were you," continues McCroskey, "I'd assume we don't know how to do that. It's not here now, it's not trivial to build, and I'm not going to give a release date. But we've got most of the people who can deliver that kind of experience. And Daniel is finding more." 

One morning in Franklin, as I walk into the Lonely Planet offices, Houghton is seeing out a serious-looking young man named Joe Bochenek. When Houghton reappears, he says, "Dude, he's a particle physicist. He helped discover the God particle! And he just explained to me why time travel won't work." The man—who did indeed contribute to the discovery of the Higgs boson—has just accepted an offer to be a Lonely Planet data scientist. His role is to analyze the company's vast stores of travel information, helping 
McCroskey's team categorize customers. Lonely Planet is no longer hiring in bars.

Personally, I'm not sure I'd hand over a company valued six years ago at a quarter of a billion dollars to a 25-year-old. But if I did, he'd be a lot like Houghton: impossibly driven, optimistic, charismatic, with a tech fetish and a welcome dose of humility. "Zuck," Houghton tells me, referring to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, "has a card that says 'I'm CEO, Bitch.' I'm the opposite of that." Houghton prefers not to use titles at all. During the week we spend in New Zealand, he repeatedly takes pains to avoid discussing his job. If pressed, he just says, "I work for Lonely Planet." 

Houghton also displays very little fear. While rafting the Class IV Shotover, he paddles with the zeal of a GoPro-clad Ahab. In Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world, he wants to try out a frightening thing called a canopy swing—basically a free fall from a cliff while attached to a rope that swings outward instead of plummeting straight down. Against my deep reservations, he convinces me to join him. Fortunately, it's closed when we arrive. 

Instead, we head to Fergburger—a hyped-up burger joint in Queenstown whose fame is partly due to Lonely Planet's recommendation—and then back to our hotel, where we sit on the patio and drink: water for me, wine for him. Houghton makes a call, hoping to lock down new office space in London. He laughs a lot on the phone. "I've got a great team," he says, sincerely, after hanging up.

I can't help but nod my head when, moments later, he utters one of his motivational standbys, apropos of nothing in particular: "Travel is a force for good."

We try that mantra out a few days later on the Routeburn Track, one of the most famous walks in the world. The three-day hike is fairly busy for a remote place, with people trudging along happily in small groups. Ours consists of about 15 people, including a TV producer from New York, a lawyer from Colorado, and a biology professor from Massachusetts. One day we eat lunch in a hut with a young couple from Belgium, who've mentioned their love of the company's books. When Houghton gets up to refill his coffee, I can't resist telling them his secret. 

"He's a writer?" asks the man. 

"No," I say. "He's the CEO." The woman turns pink and adjusts her hair. When Houghton returns, the man eagerly pitches his brother as a candidate for a guidebook-writing job. Houghton, used to this, patiently tells the man to have his brother e-mail someone at the company. "They read every e-mail," he says. "I promise."

The quietest member of our group is a college kid from Colorado who packed his MacBook. At the lodges where we stay each night, the kid sits down after dinner, puts his headphones on, and codes. Even on his 21st birthday, with a forgotten beer nearby, he's coding. He's working on an app, the third or fourth one he has written. He and Houghton quickly bond over apps and their mutual dislike of Zuckerberg. "I got off Facebook a few years ago," says Houghton. 

"Yeah, it's really just for old people now," says the kid. "Our parents are on it. It's not the future anymore."

The kid eventually describes the app he's been coding, a social-media tool that sounds a lot like Twitter. But Houghton is impressed with his ambition and work ethic. "You know," Houghton says to me later, "given the right opportunity, he might end up doing some pretty awesome things."

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