For the Record

Dispatches, August 1998

For the Record
By Todd Balf, Paul Kvinta and Kimberly Lisagor

He with the Sturdiest Roll Bars Wins

For much of its 18-year history, the Camel Trophy has been a sort of a lazy man's Raid Gauloises. Blisters and hypoxia weren't really much of a concern for beefy participants who chauffeured themselves across deserts and jungles in tanklike four-wheel-drives. But when 20 teams gather in Chile this month, the focus, organizers vehemently insist, will be on fitness. True, competitors will still convoy across most of the 1,600 miles from Santiago to Tierra del Fuego in Land Rovers. But en route, they'll have to get out and undergo some vexing physical exertions on whitewater rafts, skis, and mountain bikes. Die-hard adventure racers, however, still aren't sold: "It sounds like more of a promotional event," sniffs Duncan Smith, president of the Presidio Adventure Racing Academy. "You don't really hear people say, 'Man, I wish I could win the Camel Trophy.'"

This spring, alpinism produced some extraordinary feats, leavened by a few exceptionally painful losses. A brief rundown:

Chantal Mauduit, 1964-1998
Perhaps the most shocking blow to mountaineers was the death of acclaimed French alpinist Chantal Mauduit, 34, who suffocated in her tent at Camp II on Nepal's Dhaulagiri with climbing partner Sherpa Ang Tshering, 45. Apparently, they either failed to dig their tent out from under a cover of fresh snow or neglected to turn off their camp stove.

True Grit: Everest On One Leg
It was diagnosis of pulmonary edema that required amputee-climber Tom Whittaker to turn back just 2,000 feet shy of Everest's summit in May. But refusing to concede defeat — something he had been forced to do in two previous attempts — Whittaker, 50, staged an astonishing comeback and a week later became the first disabled climber ever to stand atop the 29,028-foot peak. "It was never easy for me," says Whittaker, who lost his right foot and kneecap to a car accident in 1979, "but I did it. This was the big one."

Missing on McKinley
Infamous for its grueling rescue missions, Mount McKinley is notable for never having taken the life of an on-duty ranger. Until May, that is, when Mike Vanderbeek, 33, a Denali National Park volunteer ranger who was called to the aid of fallen climber Daniel Raworth, lost his grip in 50-mile-per-hour winds and tumbled down an icy slope. Frantic searchers turned up Raworth's body and Vanderbeek's pack, but no sign of the lost ranger — prompting officials to assume the worst. "If he had survived the fall," says Denali ranger J. D. Swed, "we would have found him."

Bait and Twitch
When thousands of winged fire ants began pelting down from the sky into central Texas's Guadalupe River in late May, resident rainbow trout probably thought they had hit the mother of all bug buffets. But after gorging themselves on the spicy red arthropods, they learned a painful lesson: Because they contain the toxic chemical solenopsin, female fire ants aren't meant to be eaten — and now there are 22,000 belly-up trout to prove it. The incident was by no means unprecedented: The potent stingers have a reputation for plummeting into lakes and rivers following their annual spring mating ritual-an aerial dance of love that ends when droves of impregnated females begin dropping back to earth. It makes for dreadful carnage, and scientists chalk it up to stupidity on both sides: "Fire ants seem to have a fatalistic attraction to water," says University of Georgia entomologist Murray Blum. "They're just not that bright to begin with. And fish? I personally think that fish are dumb. Really dumb."

Glub, Glub, Glub One Man in a Tub
"Tommy has an amazing capacity to deal with discomfort, and that's pretty crucial," says David Clapham, a British filmmaker who is completing a documentary on his friend Tom McNally's incommodious efforts to break the world record for the smallest craft ever to cross the Atlantic. Yet McNally's May attempt in his 3-foot-11-inch boat proved an exercise more in high-seas diplomacy than in physical contortion. After his vessel snared a fishing net off Gibraltar, the six-foot-tall sculptor from Liverpool tried to hacksaw his way free, only to find himself accosted by a crew of knife-wielding Moroccan fishermen. When a gunboat from Tangiers showed up to defuse the situation, McNally, 54, forged on, bailing his damaged boat for 18 days until he washed up on the Canary Islands. Undaunted, McNally plans another try next summer in a boat whose even tinier dimensions, he hopes, will prove less provocative. "Tommy figures he can shave off six more inches," says Clapham, "and that might make all the difference."

Tea and Crumpets, Anyone?
When John Johnson, 69, got hopelessly lost in a Minnesota swamp in May, his emergence eight days later-unharmed-posed an interesting question: Were there any lessons to be learned from his ordeal? Well, experts commend the retired postal worker for sheltering in hollow logs and slathering himself in mud to ward off mosquitoes. But Jim Duke, author of the Handbook of Edible Weeds, has a problem: He says Johnson committed a cardinal culinary sin by opting for an uninspired diet of raw lily pad roots instead of exploring a host of delectable options open to him: brewing tea from lily pad flowers, making root poultices to heal his scratched limbs, and baking the stalks into bread. Johnson, who says he has no interest in being a backwoods Betty Crocker, thinks Duke is out to lunch: "It was so wet, you couldn't have burned anything. And I sure don't know about bakin' any bread."

Illustration by Jack Gallagher

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