April 24, 2014

Wranglers are struggling to keep up with passenger weight requirements.     Photo: Tslane888/Flickr/Creative Common

Fat Tourists Mean Bigger Horses

Popularity of heavy draft horses on the rise

Western wranglers have a long history of profiting from tourists seeking to get a taste of the equestrian lifestyle, but over the past decade they've had more and more trouble filling saddles. Not for lack of business, but because the tourists who made their way out West were, well, too heavy to ride. The solution? Bigger horses. 

Draft horses, which the Associated Press calls "the diesels of the horse world," became popular during the Industrial Revolution, when they were originally used for heavy labor such as plowing and moving large machinery. They fell out of favor as automated machinery replaced most of their functions, but they've found a home in the West helping to carry the larger tourists, sometimes making up as much as a quarter of a rancher's stable.

"Little horses just aren't sturdy enough to hold up in a dude operation in the Rocky Mountains," says Kipp Saile of Rockin HK Outfitters, whose largest horse weighs in at 1,800 pounds.  

Draft horses, which are more expensive to stable, allow wranglers to remove weight limits on their horses, bringing in more business in the process. According to Russ Little of Dry Ridge Outfitters, his eight draft horses save him up to $6,000 in a season. "I felt bad about telling people they're too big to ride," he says.  

With more than one-third of America's adults now obese by CDC standards, any wrangler caught without a draft horse is going to miss out on some serious business.

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What lies beyond this crater on Mars? We may know soon(ish).     Photo: Jan Kaliciak/Thinkstock

NASA Chief Outlines Path to Mars

"Stepping-stone approach" will put astronauts on the planet in 2030s

The past couple of decades have seen the space exploration community shift its attention from Earth's moon to the red planet, with NASA sending multiple rovers to Mars and scientists considering what it would take to put humans on the Martian surface. If you believe the keynote address NASA's chief administrator, Charles Bolden, gave at a Humans to Mars Summit earlier this week, the agency seems to be doubling down on the goal of a manned mission to Mars.

Speaking Tuesday at George Washington University, Bolden introduced "NASA's stepping-stone approach to Mars," pledging to make good on President Obama's 2010 challenge to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the 2030s.

The first step toward getting to Mars hinges on the International Space Station, which Bolden called "our springboard to the exploration of deep space." With guaranteed funding through at least 2024, Bolden said the ISS provides "an expanded market for private space companies, more groundbreaking research and science discovery in microgravity, and opportunities to live, work, and learn in space over longer periods of time." Research gathered during long-term stays on the ISS will provide clues about how humans could survive a deep-space mission.

NASA's next step sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel: Bolden described the agency's deep-space goal as a "mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon." The mission, planned for the 2020s on a spacecraft named Orion, would help astronauts gain experience traveling beyond low Earth orbit and would provide a useful testing ground for the technologies needed to travel to Mars.

In the interim, Bolden said that NASA will continue to send robotic spacecraft to explore the red planet's surface, gathering data to ensure safety for the astronauts who'll explore Mars. With this multistep approach, NASA seeks to develop safe technologies capable of getting astronauts to Mars—and back.

"It is important to remember that NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach," said Bolden, in an effort to assuage skeptics. But doubts remain.

Bloomberg wrote about NASA's "confused mission," explaining that "manned exploration of the solar system was a dream for baby boomers," and that "kids deserve something no less inspirational and even more practical." The post alluded to the fact that Bolden's speech took place on Earth Day, pointing out that the agency is "one of the world's critical centers for monitoring Earth's life-support systems." Rather than ambitious missions to Mars, NASA could, in the eyes of some, choose to focus on the health of our planet instead.

Of course, NASA is well aware of the threats facing Earth. The agency made headlines last month when a study it funded warned against the end of the world as we know it. Whenever a Mars mission occurs, we can only hope that it'll be one borne from curiosity, not desperation.

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The team constructed a tiny platform for the jump atop the pinnacle of the 2,700-foot-tall building.     Photo: Courtesy of Skydive Dubai/YouTube

World-Record BASE Jump in Dubai

2,700 feet off world's tallest building

A pair of French skydivers set a world record for BASE jumping from world's tallest building in Dubai on Monday. Fred Fugen and Vince Reffet completed the record feat by jumping from the Burj Khalifa building, which is 2,700 feet high.

The skydivers practiced for several days by jumping off the nearby Lauterbeunnen Mountain, which is roughly the same height as the Burj Khalifa. They also made several jumps from a helicopter in Dubai before leaping from atop the building.

"This was my best jump by far. It was a dream come true," said Reffet on his Guinness World Record.

Succesful BASE jumps have been completed before from the Burj Khalifa building, but the French duo's platform at 2,700 feet is the highest yet.

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Like most everything, San Franciscans regularly recycle bikes—just without owners' permission.     Photo: nicsanchez8/ThinkStock

San Francisco's Bait Bike Campaign

GPS locators to take thieves from handlebars to behind bars

The San Francisco Police Department wants to put the brakes on the city's bike-theft problem. Hidden throughout the city are bait bikes—bicycles outfitted with GPS locators that tip off police to potential thefts in real time.

Rather than exploit the element of surprise, police have created a veritable guerilla campaign broadcasting the sting hoping it will get potential thieves to think twice.

SFPD has already printed out 30,000 bright-yellow stickers to hand out, emblazoned with "IS THIS A BAIT BIKE?" and a picture of someone behind bars. It introduced the campaign with a flashy Craigslist ad that speaks to the department's self-image.

The ad has since been flagged for removal, but Grist reporters managed to snag a screenshot:

If the thought of getting nabbed by skeleton bikers doesn't 'derailleur' your bike-theft plans, the SFPD is at a loss.   Photo: craigslist

San Francisco has historically been hit with more than 4,000 bike thefts annually, sometimes with only parts of bikes stolen. The GPS locators won't be able to track all bike parts if they end up in chop shops, but the goal is for police to mobilize and nab suspects before bait bikes travel far from crime scenes.

San Francisco is not the first city to employ a bait bike campaign. Departments around the country attest to their effectiveness, though universities have found that the larger the school, the less effective the campaign, and some argue that the campaigns don't target the real criminals—serial bike thieves who work for chop shops, of which San Francisco has quite a few.

SFPD has stepped up its bike watch since getting called out for negligence this past January. Bike theft in the city rose 70 percent between 2006 and 2012, with few recovered bikes actually making it back to their owners.

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Agave, a hearty plant that grows well in the desert, is also used to make tequila.     Photo: Getty Images

Solar Energy, Tequila Plant Combo

Could be a win-win for solar energy and your Friday night buzz

A group of Stanford University researchers may have to celebrate with a round of tequila sunrises for their work on, well, tequila sunrises. Kind of. 

Solar technology in the desert is tough—dust from sand collects on the panels, which require frequent washings using the dry climate's precious water. But now scientists have modeled a co-location plan that will benefit both solar energy and agave plants, according to a study published in Environmental Science and Technology.

With this plan, the water used to wash the panels goes toward growing desert-friendly plants such as agave and aloe. The result? Tequila—and a more efficient biofuel source. A "high-yield" scenario would require only 0.42 liters of water to produce one megajoule of energy, Spectrum.ieee.org reports. 

This isn't the first time growers have combined solar power and agricultural production. A similar research farm exists at the University of Massachusetts, and Fukushima's "Renewable Energy Village" maintains rapeseed crops beneath a solar-panel installation.

"It could be a win-win situation," postdoctoral researcher and study leader Sujith Ravi said in a press release. "Water is already limited in many areas and could be a major constraint in the future. This approach could allow us to produce energy and agriculture with the same water."

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PETA wants to honor 500 dead turkeys with a 10-foot memorial in Iowa.     Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

PETA Plans Turkey Memorial in Iowa

For 500 dead birds

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wants to commemorate 500 dead turkeys with a massive memorial, but first it needs permission from Iowa transportation officials.

PETA member Alex Moore outlined his plan Tuesday to erect a 10-foot tombstone in honor of the birds, which were killed April 12 when the truck moving the animals overturned.

The memorial would stay up for a month and encourage people to adopt a meat-free diet as well as drive safely.

"In the past, we've applied in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin to memorialize hundreds of animals who have died in similar crashes, but so far, we haven't been accepted," PETA spokeswoman Sophia Charchuk wrote in an email to the Quad City Times. "We are hopeful that this time, the Iowa Department of Transportation will agree with us that our memorial will help save many lives by reminding drivers of their responsibility to the thousands of animals they are hauling to their deaths each day as well as to other motorists."

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Underwater with the mystery "quacker."     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Daniel Benhaim

What Does the Whale Say?

Quack, quack, quack, quack

The "bio-duck" has baffled scientists since the Cold War. NOAA thought the low-frequency quacking sound that occurs frequently off the coast of Antartica might have been the by-product of fishing boats, an elusive Soviet submarine, or some mythical polar duck.

But now, researchers from Duke University have an answer: the Antarctic minke whale. The smallest of the baleen whales, this solitary creature stays close to dense sea ice.

"That makes them quite hard to study, too, and that's also part of the reason why the signal has not been identified earlier," NOAA marine biologist Denise Risch told NPR. "It goes 'quack, quack, quack, quack.' It has this almost mechanical feel to it."

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Many major expeditions are calling it quits this year     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Expeditions Cancel Everest Climb

A few teams may still carry on

Is Everest closed for business in 2014? It’s still not certain, but at the moment everything seems to be trending in that direction—amid conflicting reports that the government of Nepal is officially shutting the door on any more south side climbing this year.

On Thursday, tweeting from base camp, Peak Freaks owner Tim Rippel wrote: “The government of Nepal made an official announcement that Everest is closed for 2014 effective immediately and that they will  honour the current climbing permits for invididuals for up to five years.” But that statement remains unconfirmed.

Also this morning, climber and blogger Alan Arnette, who is in Nepal, reported the same news, then amended it on his web site. “Of note, just as I published this,” he wrote, “a few people said the mountain had not been closed and we still have not seen official statements from some remaining teams including Himex, Altitude Junkies and Asian Trekking. I guess there is always a tiny chance something might change … this is how it goes on Everest.”

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: The dominoes have been falling fast, with several major teams announcing over the past 24 hours that they’re quitting for the year. Even if there is no blanket shutdown happening on the south side of the world’s tallest peak, the situation is rapidly approaching a point of critical mass, one that may mean 2014 is over—even for expeditions that want to press on.

“It is getting late,” a source at base camp told Outside in an email. “Today is April 24, and there is nobody above BC. ... I think this year won’t happen, as we all know this mountain. It might happen for a few teams. If they wait here and are able to open the trail and fix ropes through the Lhotse face, they might do it. But it would be a few people, especially people who don’t respect Sherpa culture and their help in the last 80 years for those—clients, guides, and climbers—who have been here in the Himalaya.”

Similar thoughts were expressed more pointedly by one of Wednesday’s most prominent dropouts: Rippel, a veteran Himalayan guide who announced in a blog post that his company, Peak Freaks, was ceasing climbing operations for reasons of both safety and respect.

“As I give this dispatch I hear an avalanche,” Rippel wrote. “Earlier today I listened to another coming from the same direction off the western shoulder that killed 16 Sherpas on April 17th. What I am seeing here is exactly why we no longer climb on adjacent Ama Dablam [and] Mount Pumori ... We no longer climb those mountains due to global warming, the ice is melting, the glue that holds them together.”

Rippel went on to describe a base camp atmosphere that was tense and potentially frightening. “[T]he political environment here is getting much more complex and anger is developing,” he wrote. “There is talk of retaliation on Sherpas who want to continue and I’m not about to be part of this or put any of my staff or clients in danger. There seems to be two tribes forming and this makes for a dangerous situation in an already unstable mountainous environment.”

Even so, the government of Nepal seemed to be holding out hope that some south side climbing can happen. Outside’s Grayson Schaffer, who is en route to base camp from Kathmandu, spoke Thursday morning with Maddhu Sudan Burlakoti, Nepal’s joint secretary of the ministry of cultural tourism and civil aviation. Burlakoti, who was heading for base camp by helicopter, told Schaffer that there are Sherpas and teams who still want to try for the summit, and that the government is committed to helping make that possible.

“They are ready to climb,” he said, “but there are some issues, so we go there and listen to them.” When asked if anybody is likely to climb this year, he emphasized: “They are going to climb.”

That may be, but the dominant theme of Wednesday and Thursday was people who are not going to climb. Joining big outfitters like Alpine Ascents International and Adventure Consultants, who decided earlier this week to fold up their tents, heavyweights IMG and RMI Expeditions announced on Wednesday that they were closing the books. In a post on the RMI Everest blog, Dave Hahn, an RMI guide who has climbed Everest 15 times, sounded a note of melancholy about events that have rocked the mountain this year.

“This week has been a roller coaster of emotion for many of us, from the horror that came with the avalanche ... to the confusion that followed it regarding the right course to take for balancing respects for the dead, concern for team safety and summit ambitions,” he wrote. “[W]e believed it worthwhile to continue looking for some way forward. Our climbers, Sherpas, guides, and outfitters had put too much into the planning and execution of this trip to let go of the  goal with less than our best effort. We’ve given that now.”

One smaller outfit that that’s leaving base camp is Himalayan Ascent, an outfitter with roots in both Nepal and Australia that emphasizes small teams and deep camaraderie between clients and Sherpas. Himalayan Ascent lost three men to the avalanche: Ankaji Sherpa, Tenzing Sherpa, and Asman Gurung. Patrick Hollingworth, the company’s Perth-based business manager, told Outside that all the men were a grievious loss, but that Ankaji Sherpa in particular represented what the company hopes will be a significant part of Everest’s future: homegrown talent with world-class training.

“I think you’re seeing a new generation of Sherpas realizing their importance and the power they have when they work together,” he said. “You see young guys coming through the program for aspiring guides offered by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association. Ankaji was halfway through that course.”

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