News from the Field, December 1996
For The Record
By Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta
Up the Zambezi, Sans Paddle
Todd Brownell, a Hollywood stuntman and member of the American entry in the International Whitewater Challenge on Zimbabwe's notorious Zambezi River last September, called it the toughest two minutes of his life. And unfortunately, since survival swimming was not one of the official disciplines in whitewater's de facto world championships--the featured races included sprint and
slalom kayak heats and a downriver rafting event--he didn't even get credit for it. In fact, since Brownell's furious thrash occurred in the points-loaded downriver race, in which contestants had to endure eight Class IV-V rapids, the spill landed not only Brownell in the drink, but the rest of the U.S. squad as well. Losing two minutes, the Americans finished a disappointing
ninth as the Slovenians took top honors for the second year in a row.
My Life as a Plane
Sure, some BASE jumpers are crowing over a federal judge's October decision to dismiss charges against Will Oxx--one of the sport's biggest stars--for an unauthorized leap in May 1995. But they won't be happy for long. Judge Bruce Jenkins ultimately accepted Oxx's argument that he and his parachute
constituted an "aircraft" when he jumped from a cliff in Glen Canyon and subsequently crash-landed on Lake Powell. Yet Jenkins clearly feels BASE jumping is a dubious practice, noting in court that "some people are built in such a fashion that one must use great care to assist them in not self-destructing" and admonishing Park Service officials to clarify existing regulations.
Meanwhile, Oxx's lawyer, Fred Morelli, insists he'll keep fighting the park's practice of excluding BASE jumpers. "I don't want to sue them," he says. "But that would be the next logical step."
C'est la Knobby
At the World Mountain Bike Championships last September in Cairns, Australia, downhiller Nicolas Vouilloz was perplexed. Not only was his seemingly unbeatable sub-4:55 run in jeopardy, but the challenger was a guy with only a few months of racing under his belt--American snowboarding champion Shaun
Palmer. A much-tattooed Californian, Palmer had reached the final straightaway in a dead heat. In the end, Vouilloz's fretting went for naught: Palmer stalled in the stretch just enough to hand him a scant 0.15 second victory. In the women's downhill, Anne-Caroline Chausson of France edged American Leigh Donovan by 0.18 seconds. Yet another Gallic rider, Jerome Chiotti, captured
the men's cross-country race, but in the women's event Canada's Alison Sydor prevented a French sweep with her third consecutive world title.
A rising political star, Frederico Maia possessed what voters on the northwestern Brazilian frontier had longed for: humble origins, a commoner's perspective, and the ability to stomach just about anything. In fact, despite the rather serious handicap of having been born a goat, weeks before the election Frederico held a commanding lead in his bid to become mayor of the town of
Pilar. But tragically, it seems Frederico had also amassed some determined enemies: Just days after surviving a hail of gunfire as a 50-car convoy paraded him among cheering throngs in downtown Pilar last September, Frederico was found dead, allegedly poisoned in his own backyard. "He had a lot of foam in his mouth," says distraught owner Petrucio Maia, who launched Frederico's
mayoral campaign to protest the race's underwhelming roster of human candidates. Alas, at press time Frederico's killers had not been brought to justice, and the outlook wasn't good. "They rarely solve murders out there," explains Michael Christie, a British journalist based in Brazil. "Especially goat murders."
In an unusually introspective publicity bio, Italian breathhold-diving champion Umberto Pelizzari writes, "It's pretty hard to explain why a boy decides to devote himself to holding his breath." Perhaps for the thrill of being the best at something so admirably, frighteningly pure? Well, late last
September off Villasimius, Italy, the 31-year-old Pelizzari was at it again, diving to skull-crushing depths without breathing apparatus to one-up his archrival, Cuba's Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras, and extend the world records for variable ballast and "no limits" variable ballast dives to 361 feet and 430 feet, respectively. The former allows the diver to descend with the aid of a
66-pound weight and return using the ballast cable, while the latter places no restrictions on the means of descent or ascent. Pelizzari now holds world records in all three of the sport's disciplines, including the most demanding of all, the constant ballast dive, in which the diver round-trips with the help of nothing but fins. Upon surfacing from the last of his record-setting
descents, Pelizzari was boyishly enthusiastic."I am," he said, "the king of the sea."
Can I Get a Price Check on Chilly Willy?
In a perfect world, zoologist Keith Reid would conduct his annual Antarctic penguin count each December with little more than a bar-code reader, swiping beaks like a grocery store clerk adding up frozen Butterballs. Well, believe it or not, Reid's fantasy may soon become
reality. When he and his colleagues with the British Antarctic Survey tromp after the waddling birds this month, they will be examining the feasibility of the "bar code method," a research technique that, unlike the injected-transponder method now used, could provide a major breakthrough in penguin study: the ability to distinguish and track individuals within flocks of thousands
of nearly identical birds. Studying penguin behavior, Reid explains, is crucial to unraveling the secrets of the continent's ecosystem. But the challenges are daunting: Catching the rascally penguins requires something akin to an open-field tackle. "Penguins are tough," says Reid. "When you wrestle one to the ground, you get a good flippering to the shin."
The Longest 270 Yards
"Jerimoth was a damn nightmare," shudders mountaineer Bruce Marshall. "It's harder to summit than McKinley." Sadly, Marshall is referring to Rhode Island's 812-foot Jerimoth Hill, the highest point in the state. The reason for the difficulty isn't the usual bone-chilling winds and deadly
crevasses, but 73-year-old retiree Henry Richardson, whose driveway hikers must cross to reach the summit. "We're 20 feet up the drive and he races out carrying a pistol and screaming," claims Marshall, recalling his expedition last August. Over the past two years, Richardson has reportedly scared off dozens of members of the Highpointers Club, whose goal is to reach the highest
point in each state, granting access only to officials of Brown University, who are planning to build an observatory atop it. Now it appears the frustrated Highpointers may finally have found a solution. In October, Brown astronomy professor David Targan offered to escort anyone who'd already bagged the other 49 peaks. Of course, there remains a catch. Says Targan: "We'll have to
disguise them as astronomy students."
Lopsang Sherpa, 1973-1996
Tragically, the survivors of last spring's catastrophe on Mount Everest have lost another from their ranks. Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, a 23-year-old Nepalese guide who barely escaped the storm that killed his close friend Scott Fischer and seven others, died in September in an avalanche while
fixing lines just below the mountain's South Col on the Lhotse Face. According to the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism, the avalanche started just below Lhotse's Geneva Spur, burying Lopsang, Dawa Sherpa, and a French climber. Part of an emerging group of higher-profile Sherpa alpinists, Lopsang often told friends he hoped to summit Everest without oxygen 11 times, thus breaking the
mark held by Ang Rita Sherpa. He had already done it four times. "He really wanted to be someone special," says longtime Everest guide Todd Burleson. "He had this idea of being famous, a hero. Yet he also had a selflessness that was pure Sherpa."