The Slippery North Slope

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. camps in the Arctic and asks why big oil can't keep its hands off America's largest patch of wilderness

 

JUST NORTH of the Arctic Circle on the coast of Alaska, there's a lush fairway of liquid emerald tundra upon which 129,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd converge during the early part of summer to feast on succulent cotton grass, nurse their young, and escape airborne armadas of mosquitoes by dipping into the frigid waters of the Beaufort Sea. If the timing's right, this is one of the most magnificent wildlife spectacles on earth. Regrettably, however, we're here during the last week in July. And while not a single caribou is anywhere to be seen, the skeeters are everywhere. Right now, in fact, a cloud of them is zeroing in on a ridge where, poised before a CBS television crew, gazing with hooded blue eyes toward the ice-studded sea, and smearing his hand over an angry stain created by a bottle of deet that exploded in the pocket of his pants, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is offering up an impassioned paean to this patch of paradise.

"This is the largest pristine wilderness in North America," Kennedy croaks in a froggy quaver. "And it enriches us all because nature is the way that God communicates with us most forcefully—"

Slap!

"Here we can see the Creator's richness, not only in this giant expanse of wetlands, but also in the mosquito population—"

Slap!

"Yet oil companies want to treat this land as if it were a business to be liquidated. If we allow them to destroy this place, then all of humanity will be diminished, because—"

Slap!

"CUT!"

Kennedy's on a roll, but his soliloquy will have to wait until the wind picks up and the bugs subside. John Blackstone, the CBS correspondent, sighs with relief and mashes a mosquito net over his head. Pamela Miller, who runs VIP trips to Alaska's North Slope, spritzes her hair with another layer of deet. As we hike back to our camp, four miles up the Aichilik River, Kennedy turns to his 15-year-old son Bobby, who isn't looking too jazzed about having joined his father's latest adventure-travel-cum-environmental-activism vacation. "Now I see why the caribou jump in the ocean and freeze their asses off with big smiles on their faces," the elder Kennedy quips. "If people see this, they're gonna say, 'Go ahead and give this place to the oil companies.'"

THE PLACE HE'S talking about is the most ecologically significant, biologically diverse, and politically contentious slice of Alaska's 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In 1980, Congress ratified legislation to protect eight million acres of the Refuge as wilderness, but the coastal plain we've been camping on for the last two days, designated the "1002 Area," makes up about an eighth of the 11.6 million acres that remain vulnerable to development. This is in spite of the fact that the 1002 Area is America'spremier summer sanctuary for virtually every major form of Arctic wildlife—musk oxen, grizzlies, wolves, golden eagles, and caribou, as well as 135 species of birds. It is also coveted by several petroleum companies currently drilling in Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles to the west, because it sits on an estimated 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable crude oil. That's enough to cover the U.S.'s energy needs for about six months.

After hanging in limbo for 20 years, the fate of this teeming chunk of permafrost known as the American Serengeti may finally be decided on November 7. While rumors shoot through Washington that Bill Clinton might declare the 1002 Area a National Monument just after the presidential election, Alaska's industry-friendly congressional delegation is scrambling to exploit public alarm over the summer's spiking gas prices to push the opposite agenda. Since last March, GOP legislators have introduced three bills to open this part of the Refuge to drilling, and its future now hinges on who will win the White House. Al Gore has vowed to protect the 1002 Area; George W. Bush favors an infusion of rigs, airfields, and a pipeline grid that could eventually crisscross the entire coastal strip.

All of which is why the 46-year-old Kennedy, the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a whitewater buff (he's participated in first descents on a half-dozen rivers in the Americas), is now parked alongside the Aichilik River. He's here practicing what he likes to call "adventure activism," a barnstorming tactic he's previously used to great effect in several high-profile environmental battles, including a successful bid to stop a dam project in Quebec in 1988, and a drive earlier this year to block a Mitsubishi salt plant that many feared would destroy a gray-whale nursery near Baja, California.

Adventure, of course, is what you make of it. The morning after our hike up the ridge, Kennedy plunges into the bone-numbing river, treats himself to a shampoo-and-rinse, then lathers up for a shave while the rest of us break camp to prepare for Phase Two of our North Slope tour: Prudhoe Bay. When fog delays the bush plane for several hours, forcing us to wait in a chilly wind, Kennedy remedies the situation by drenching his topo maps in white gas and using them to ignite a pile of driftwood. After the plane arrives, we fly over the watery green plain, skimming above rivers of burnished silver and snowy flocks of tundra swan. Once again, there's not a caribou in sight—until we land in Prudhoe Bay, where our pilot must turn to avoid colliding with three bulls out for a stroll across the tarmac.

DESPITE THIS titillating wildlife moment, the North Slope oil patch is a brutal contrast to the wilderness we've left behind. Its 19 fields, 3,900 wells (which pump a million barrels a day), and hundreds of waste pits sprawl across some 8,500 square miles. Waiting to squire us through a small section of this mammoth fuel depot are two top-notch flacks: BritishPetroleum's Ronnie Chappell, who started his PR career with Arco in January 1989 (two months before the Exxon Valdez spill), and Bill Van Dyke, a spinmeister at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Kennedy has barely hopped aboard the shuttle bus when Van Dyke starts pelting him with statistics on how well the caribou herd around Prudhoe Bay is doing. Chappell and Van Dyke clearly feel that this is an important issue, presumably because environmentalists worry that drilling in the 1002 Area could disrupt the Porcupine herd's calving season. "Hey," Van Dyke exclaims. "There's two caribou right out there! It's kinda my job to point out every single one." He explains that the herd around Prudhoe Bay has increased threefold since drilling began in the 1970s—a boom that, Van Dyke does not mention, occurred largely because oil workers killed off or drove away most of the local predators. "There's another one!" Van Dyke shouts. In the back of the bus, John Blackstone from CBS has momentarily dozed off.

We take a gravel causeway out to a drilling platform called Endicott. While we stare up at a 150-foot derrick, all three million pounds of it, Chappell explains how hard British Petroleum strives to protect the environment by using temporary ice roads and employing sophisticated angular-drilling technologies, which reduce the number of drill pads in a given area. This is all true; but so too is the fact that last February BP was convicted of failing to inform the EPA in a timely manner that one of its contractors had dumped hazardous waste down Endicott's well holes for three straight years. For this offense, Chappell's company was forced to pay $22 million in fines, and will spend five years on probation.

Eventually, we're ushered into Endicott's offices, where talk turns to the question of who actually worries about the Refuge. "It is my understanding that there's only a small core of Americans who care deeply about ANWR," intones Chappell, citing a poll conducted by Arctic Power, an industry group that lobbies for drilling in the 1002 Area. (BP last year contributed $50,000 to Arctic Power, and the organization's board includes a BP official.) "Most of them don't even know about it."

Tossing a chart onto an overhead projector, Van Dyke begins raving about the added cash that will flow into the state if the Refuge is opened up to drilling. This is another key issue. Oil revenues supply up to 85 percent of Alaska's yearly income. Without it, Alaskans would have to pay state taxes like most folks in the Lower 48—a burden so onerous, Van Dyke says, "that it'd force people to move out of the state."

After listening to this spiel, Kennedy says he'd like a chance to respond. His theme: the absurdity of breaking into a wildlife sanctuary to tap a six-month supply of oil. "Wilderness holds Americans together as a people; it defines us as a people," he declares. "If we treat it with contempt and destroy it for a few barrels of oil, what we're really saying is that the only thing that defines us is money. What we should be doing is encouraging people to conserve energy. It'll give us a lot more oil, a lot cheaper, without the environmental problems, rather than just feeding an addiction by destroying something we value."

Chappell offers a tepid smile. "We're not opposed to conservation," he replies. "But the product we make is vital to all Americans." Van Dyke chuckles and asks if we might like to take some lapel pins home with us. It's time to go.

As the shuttle returns to the airport, where a jet is waiting to whisk us to Fairbanks, the tundra is bathed in a luminous silver-and-green glow that only the endless twilight of an Arctic midsummer night can achieve. We pass by immense fleets of machinery and miles of pipeline. After our two nights next to the Aichilik, the scene seems unnatural and depressingly blunt. Chappell leans over my shoulder. "Now remember," he drawls, "we can go into environmentally sensitive areas in a way that doesn't have a negative impact on wildlife. A development out there wouldn't look like this. It'd be dictated by—"

Chappell, it would seem, is about to uncork the secret behind eco-perfect oil exploration, undoubtedly by reinvoking the miracles of ice roads and angular drilling. But he's suddenly thrown off his game. "Hey, Ronnie," Kennedy interrupts. "You guys must get some pretty good views of the northern lights up here, eh? You know, the kinda thing where it looks like somebody's pulled a zipper open across the heavens and the stars are just spilling out on top of you?"

For the first time all day, Chappell's face is animated by a policy-free enthusiasm. "Oh yeah!" he says. "Sometimes they hang so low that it feels like you can actually reach up and grab them right out of the sky." He pauses, gazing at the pipelines next to the bus. "It's truly an amazing thing." 

 

Access+Resources
Where Caribou Freeze Their Asses Off

As far as the U.S. goes, it simply doesn't get any more remote than the North Slope of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts one of the greatest wildlife pageants in all of North America, but virtually no roads, huts, or trails within more than 30,000 square miles. To navigate this wilderness, sign on with a guide for a one- to two-week trek or a float down one of the major rivers. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it's a big time commitment. But it will be one of the best trips you ever take.

WHEN TO GO: The third week in June, when the caribou are calving, the flowers are out, and the mosquitoes haven't yet hatched.

GETTING OUTFITTED: Contact Alaska Discovery (800-586-1911; www.akdiscovery.com), Arctic Wild (888-577-8203; www.arcticwild.com), or Arctic Treks (907-455-6502; www.arctictreksadventures.com). These outfitters offer trips down the Hulahula, Canning, Kongakut, Sheenjek, and Aichilik Rivers, as well as backpacking trips on the coastal plain (each eight- to 19-day journey will cost between $2,000 and $2,990). If you prefer to explore on your own, make arrangements with a bush-plane service—for about $300 an hour. Contact Coyote Air in Cold Foot (800-252-0603; www.flycoyote.com) or Wright Air Service (907-474-0502). —Carol Greenhouse

E-navigation comes down to earth

It's not the first time contour lines have graced an LCD screen, but the GeoDiscovery might just yank outdoor computing out of the geeksphere and into the realm of usefulness. The navigation system has a GPS receiver that snaps into the Handspring Visor PDA (seen here), and software that merges the satellite data with more qualitative information. The result: topo maps that hyperlink to so-called "geo-encoded" content, such as Foghorn guides, which list some 50,000 campsites and 1,000 hiking trails per state. In the woods, simply tap the screen to find out where you are, the distance to the trailhead, the history of the area, and—critically—the name, description, and location of the nearest bar. The software also works with Palm PDAs, but the Handspring-only Geode is appealing for its digital compass and two memory slots, which let you plug in cards that hold a region's worth of guidebook info. The complete GeoDiscovery package runs about $250 (www.geodiscovery.com; 888-206-6444), so until the company releases its promised waterproof casing, you'd best keep it in a Ziploc. 

You're Getting Warmer...

On the trail of the Sasquatch hunters, director Peter von Puttkamer searches for his own version of the truth

CALL IT THE Hoop Dreams of Bigfoot movies. Though it just missed an Oscar nomination, Sasquatch Odyssey, a one-hour documentary about rival hominid hunters, has already left a large, shaggy mark on the film fest circuit. On October 28, Canadian director Peter von Puttkamer's movie will screen nationwide on The Learning Channel.

Sasquatch Odyssey, which played the prestigious International Documentary Association's festival and the New York International Independent Film Festival, follows Peter Byrne, Rene Dahinden, John Green, and Grover Krantz—"the four horsemen of Sasquatchery"—who have dedicated their lives to searching for the mythical apelike giant of British Columbia and the Northwest.

"They are eccentric, but not crazy, and they are moving on in the face of a lot of crazies," says von Puttkamer of the four. "They keep running into people who want to tie Bigfoot in to space aliens." In one sequence, Jack Lapseritis, author of The Psychic Sasquatch, sends Dahinden into conniptions with his description of an encounter with "paraphysical interdimensional nature people." Fumes Dahinden: "I'm not interested in Sasquatch in his goddamn mind—I want Sasquatch in the bush!"

Though the documentary includes footage from several Sasquatch expeditions, including the now legendary "Patterson film" (lensed in Northern California in 1967, it depicts what many believe to be a female Sasquatch cavorting in the wild), the real story concerns four obsessed, sometimes grumpy, old men. "It isn't necessarily about Sasquatches," says Betsey McLane, director emeritus of the International Documentary Association, who last year picked the film as a Doctober fest selection, a prerequisite for an Oscar nomination. "It is about the people—everyone can identify with these guys."

Von Puttkamer—who's now at work on Monster Hunters, two new cryptozoologic-themed pilots also headed for The Learning Channel—took 18 months to produce Sasquatch Odyssey. He began the project as a serious study of "wildmen" myths, and although the end result is more arch than anthropological, there's still a message. "We need monsters; we need to know that we have enough forest out there that there is the possibility of Bigfoot," says von Puttkamer, now a believer himself. "If we cut down the forests we are not only cutting down the natural world, we are destroying our dreams."
 

The Crux

Wilderness Zoning

Test Case: Mount Hood

Thinking of clambering around some of Mount Hood's 130,700 acres of designated wilderness this fall? Here's what the rangers will tell you: If you stop on a high-use trail, either to camp or take a picnic break, you should expect to set down your pack only in officially designated sites. Newly conscripted volunteer "wilderness stewards" will greet you with policy information and advice on "Leave No Trace" etiquette. And—as is the case on other Western mountains—visitors will be strongly encouraged to pack out human waste. "We are still managing Mount Hood as wilderness, but not as pristinewilderness," explains Kathleen Walker, a National Forest ranger at the area.

For the time being, bushwacking will still be permitted, as will adventuring on unofficial boot trails, but protecting low-use zones will be a high priority. If flora is trampled or trails begin to erode, the rangers will clamp down on access. In other words: Please follow the herd.

According to the Forest Service, this plan balances the demands of the 100-odd climbers who on busy days scale the 11,237-foot peak's south face with those of the handful of overnighters who trek into the region's more remote areas. Critics, however, see the plan as the undoing of the wilderness system, making what was intended to be solitary wilds all too reminiscent of National Parks.  —James Morton Turner


Forgettable Forests Forever

The feds steer muddy boots away from the roads less traveled
This land is your land, but your right to wander it according to whim may be coming to an end. If the Wilderness Recreation Strategy—a new Forest Service plan about to enter a test phase—gathers enough steam nationwide, then heavily trodden forests, streams, and deserts near large cities will be "zoned" for use, not unlike real estate.

The big idea is to divvy up wilderness into two distinct recreation categories based on how intensely the areas are used. The goal: to protect still-pristine "low-use zones" (which aren't popular because they don't include waterfalls, lakes, and other scenic hooks) by limiting visitor use—likely with a reservation or first come, first served scheme. In "high-use zones," which generally include spectacular vistas, new permits may force visitors to camp in designated sites and stick to trails. The plan represents a U-turn from the conventional Forest Service strategy of steering hikers toward lesser-used areas in order to more widely distribute their footprints.

This fall, the Forest Service will launch a hotly debated pilot project for the new program in Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest. Look for tests to follow in California's John Muir Wilderness and New Hampshire's Pemigewasset Wilderness.  —J.M.T.

The U.S. Forest Service's overall recreation strategy can be found at www.fs.fed.us/recreation
The complete wilderness zoning proposal is available from www.wildwilderness.org
Read specific federal strategies for Mount Hood at www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/wildnu.htm
An analysis of the policy change can be found at www.wildernesswatch.org
For information on a variety of Wilderness Act controversies, see www.wilderness.net

 

EAR TO THE GROUND

"[This] is a step in the right direction. Mount Hood is a major play area. If resource damage is being done, then limits on use may be necessary."
—Keith Mischke, executive director of Mazamas, a Portland-based mountaineering organization

"We're not opening the gates and saying there are no limits. We're drawing lines in the sand saying there could be limits in certain areas."
—Kathleen Walker, Wilderness Planner, Mount Hood National Forest

"This is the most profound and frightening development in wilderness protection in 35 years. Instead of restricting access, the Forest Service is just changing their standards."
—George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, a Montana-based conservation group

"Our wilderness is hammered dreadfully. There are only so many folks who can use a piece of wilderness at one time before it stops being wilderness. But the Forest Service is promoting wilderness as a recreational resource. Zoning wilderness only makes wilderness more customer-friendly."
—Scott Silver, director of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based advocacy group

Stars on Ice

Seven years after Cliffhanger, Hollywood takes another crack at the mountaineering action genre

THOUGH CHRIS O'Donnell and Bill Paxton supply star power to Columbia Pictures' The Vertical Limit, an $85 million action-adventure pic due in theaters December 8, it's already evident who will be the movie's real scene-stealer: gravity. Not many other motion pictures—IMAX films included—can be counted on to yo-yo your stomach the way shots in this movie promise to.

The plot: After ignoring storm warnings, a K2 climbing team finds itself trapped in a crevasse—and the estranged sibling of the party's leader must launch a dicey mission to save them. The camera work may not rescue the picture from a string of preposterous twists, but it will likely set a precedent as the first Hollywood blockbuster best viewed after a dose of Dramamine.

"We wanted to take cinema audiences for a ride," says director Martin Campbell, whose previous credits include GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro. "And there were certain places where we simply couldn't be true to life. The breathing at that altitude is so labored. Or the stepping, each actor chomping through the snow as they really would—that would take forever. So we said, 'To hell with that, we've got to speed that up.'"

Slow is not a word often associated with Campbell's filmmaking. His style might well be called cinema velocité. No sooner has the film begun than a climbing accident finds five climbers in Utah's Monument Valley all falling at once. Think of the rock-climbing opener in M:I-2—only this time Tom Cruise butters off his hold and takes a few extras with him.

Campbell, who suffers from vertigo, relied on director of photography David Tattersal (Phantom Menace) and visual effects whiz Kent Houston (12 Monkeys). They spent six months shooting on location in the Southern Alps of Campbell's native New Zealand. Then, to simulate the death-zone climate for blue-screen work, crews built a 45-foot climbing wall inside a refrigerated soundstage in Queenstown. "Vertigo is so 3-D," notes Houston, "and we had to express it in 2-D. To get the right effect, you have to have a point of reference, for scale—or motion. Fortunately, Martin and David both like a very mobile camera so we were able to build on that." The filmmakers frequently traded a dolly-tracked camera for a freely held one, and Houston's team worked with software to link all the frantic camera movements so they would blur together to create seamless, dizzying sequences.

Houston's favorites include a segment where a stuntman catapults over a 3,000-foot chasm on a cable, and a shot in which a climber slides out of control toward the abyss, catching his ax on a cornice of "ice" just in time. "We shot it on the blue screen stage... It's a Hollywood moment," Houston admits. "One of those where you say, 'Let's go for the shot, rather than the logic.' But when you see him hanging there—you just jump when that happens!" No joke.

 

Make it Stop
Alpinist Mark Twight sounds off on The Vertical Limit's teaser

IF THE TWO-MINUTE TRAILER is any indication, The Vertical Limit perpetuates an exasperating pattern: On movie mountains, invisible crevasses open and snap shut, snow and stones rain constantly, and hundred-year storms kill on a weekly schedule. Although they fall with alarming frequency, when climbers are "on," they are the strongest ever seen—capable of sticking a 70-foot downward dyno, or avoiding a 3,000-foot fall by sinking a single ice tool into a cornice (sixty to zero in a millisecond without separating his shoulder!). No doubt The Vertical Limit will be a thrilling ride: Cliffhanger, but without guns, stolen cash, or Stallone. And like that action flick, it's sure to nauseate those of us who know better. Still, the film's saving grace will be apparent to climbers. That it was made at all—hell, that no one was killed in the process—is a tribute to the 50 consultants (including alpinist Ed Viesturs) who trained the actors to climb, doubled for them when they couldn't, safeguarded camera crews, and managed the huge risk of 300 bumblies traipsing around in New Zealand's Southern Alps. Sadly, in spite of their constant presence, Hollywood appears to have once again turned mountaineering into a farce.

Evel Kneivel Was a Wimp

Cheryl Stearns has the right stuff to break the high-altitude skydiving record—and freefall at the speed of sound

FORTY YEARS ago, U.S. Air Force test pilot Joe Kittinger flew a balloon to the edge of space and bailed out. His 102,800-foot parachute jump—an experiment designed to research high-altitude ejections—is one of the world's longest-held aeronautical records.

Human projectiles the world over seemed just fine with that until Cheryl Stearns came along. This December, the 45-year-old pilot plans to make the first of a series of practice jumps toward her 2001 effort to parachute, in a space suit, from a helium balloon, at the astronomical height of 130,000 feet. If all goes according to plan, she'll break the sound barrier on the way down—becoming the first human to do so without help from a plane or rocket.

"You need to keep an aerodynamic streamline,"explains Stearns. "You don't want an arm sticking out when you go from transonic to supersonic. That would start me rotating." Such rotation, if not immediately checked, could be catastrophic; Kittinger nearly died when he became entangled in his chute and went into a spin on the first of his three test jumps in 1959 and 1960.

To prepare for Project StratoQuest—the highfalutin name for her drop through nearly 25 miles of restricted airspace over either New Mexico or western Texas next October—Stearns plans to make about two dozen practice jumps ranging in altitude from 12,000 to 60,000 feet. The scene at the landing site next year will have the feel of a festive Space Shuttle launch, complete with a play-by-play direct from the plummeting Stearns. To the now retired Kittinger, she faces a world of danger: "You make a mistake, and you're dead."

Stearns understands this, and though she's no wing-nut weekend warrior, she clearly thinks she's got something to prove. With more than 13,000 skydives under her belt, she holds the world record for the most jumps in a 24-hour period (352). She was also the first woman accepted onto the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team and holds down a day job as a 737 captain for US Airways. "There's nothing I hate more than people telling me I can't do something," she says. "Because then I've got to do it."

Magma Carta

Twelve great ways to heat up your fall travel plans

YASUR VOLCANO IS ANGRIER during Vanuatu's wet season, which begins this month. The waters off Hawaii's Big Island are cooler now, making for even showier explosions when Kilauea's 2,000-degree lava flows hit the shoreline. And it's the perfect time to visit the magma-oozing, sulfur-belching cauldrons of Central and South America. Thus, we've unilaterally dubbed November International Volcano Month. To celebrate, we've chosen 12 of the world's most spectacular volcanic hot spots—those that sputter reliably, but won't necessarily render you a Pompeian statue. Such endeavors are, by nature, volatile, and several cones are better seen in summer, so check with the World Organization of Volcano Observatories (volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/wovo) before booking your trip.

1. Akutan Island  |  4,275 feet
Aleutian Islands, Alaska

It's a ten-mile hike to Akutan's summit caldera, where endless simmer has reigned for decades and where ash spews from a small hole and lands with a fizz into an adjacent glacial lake. Don't rush it: You'll pass two fields of steaming vents along the way. The groundwater around each vent boils, and there is a variety of hot springs, ranging from a scalding 120 degrees to a tepid 90.

GETTING THERE: Fly from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, where you can catch a daily flight to Akutan village. Aleutian Adventure Sports (907-581-4489) runs a four-day trip in July and August for $1,020.

2. Yellowstone  |  8,000 feet
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

When the Yellowstone caldera, now one of the half-dozen largest in the world, last popped around 628,000 B.C., it blanketed everything between California and New Orleans in ash before collapsing into a 28-by-47-mile crater. So? Well, it's the largest grouping of magmatic features on Earth: huge geysers (Old Faithful can reach 190 feet), hot springs, steaming fumaroles (aka vents), and mud pots—the sad remains of geysers that have lost their oomph. 

GETTING THERE: We recommend cross-country skiing it. Yellowstone National Park, 307-344-7381.

3. Kilauea  |  4,090 feet
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Most of Kilauea's fiery froth runs through tunnels that spout it seaward from cliffs high above the water. The result? Dr. Evil's wildest dreams incarnate: gigantic steam clouds, boulders of rapidly cooling lava hurtling a quarter-mile above the ocean, and, yes, liquid-hot magma. Accordingly, the action should be viewed only from a half-mile away, on the Chain of Craters Road, or from the air (Sunshine Helicopter offers flights for $160; 800-622-3144). Or hike the 14-mile lava-rock-lined Napau Trail next to still-creeping overland lava flows. 

GETTING THERE: Fly to Hilo, Hawaii. Volcanoes National Park, 808-985-6000.

4. Volcán Masaya  |  2,083 feet
Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua

A wooden cross next to Masaya's sulfur-belching vent marks the spot where ancients offered ritual sacrifices to the bubbling lava. Worse yet, in the 1600s Spaniards lowered themselves into the coughing maw, thinking it contained gold. 

GETTING THERE: Fly to Managua; then rent a car to make the 15-mile drive southeast to the park's entrance (Masaya Volcano National Park, 011-505-522-5415).

5. Arenal  |  5,360 feet
Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

Hiking all the way to Arenal's rim is forbidden by the park, and though local guides willing to take you anyway might hint otherwise, beware: Unpredictable explosions mean that getting close is nothing less than a gamble with your life. (In a late-August eruption, two Americans were engulfed in hot ash and rocks; one died and the other remains critically injured.) Rather, arrive at dusk and settle into the steaming Tabacón hot springs at Arenal's base (a half-mile west of the town of Fortuna) where you can watch bright orange rivers of lava flowing down its flanks. Or stay at the former Smithsonian observatory, now Arenal Observatory Lodge (doubles start at $35; 888-895-9723).

GETTING THERE: Fly to San José, Costa Rica. From there, the park is a three-hour drive to the northwest.

6. Kick 'Em Jenny  |  -525 feet
Grenada, West Indies

Kick 'Em rises 4,300 feet above the ocean floor, but since it's still 525 feet below sea level, you'll need a submarine or JIM hard-shell diving suit to check it out. Or, wait 50 years and hike the world's youngest island—Kick 'Em grows about ten feet per annum.

GETTING THERE: Fly to St. George's, Grenada. Grenada Visitors Bureau: 800-927-9554.

7. Hekla  |  4,747 feet
Iceland

By the 1500s, after hearing of Hekla's regular devastating eruptions, continental Europeans had decided it was the entrance to hell (spawning the phrase "Go to Hekla," perhaps?). Since Iceland's earliest settlement, as many as 20 eruptions have covered 80 percent of the country in Heklan ash. Last spring it huffed and puffed for 11 days, but it has settled down since. The steaming cone is approachable via a six-mile hike over tundra.

GETTING THERE: From Reykjavík, drive 60 miles south on Route 1 and Route 26.

8. Stromboli  |  3,038 feet
Stromboli Island, Italy

Few volcanoes can match the Stromboli standard for pyrotechnic display—picture a vat of spaghetti sauce at a rolling boil, shooting out loud blasts of lava and rock up to 200 feet high. You can see the fireworks from the rim, a 3,200-foot climb. Contact locally based Volcavento, which is run by two vulcanologists, to book a guide (volcavento@stromboli.net, 011-39-90-98-6383).

GETTING THERE: From Rome, fly to Palermo, Sicily, and then take a train to Milazzo and a ferry to Stromboli.

9. Kronotsky Nature Reserve  |  up to 11,575 feet
Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia

The 2.7 million acres of Kamchatka's Kronotsky Biosphere Nature Preserve contain hot springs, boiling mud cauldrons, and 12 active volcanoes. Hike the Valley of Geysers, a three-mile long section of the Geyser River with more than 150 geysers perforating the steep 600-foot banks (and look for the red, blue, and yellow algae).

GETTING THERE: From Anchorage fly to Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy, 120 miles south of the preserve (Reeve Aleutian Airways, 800-544-2248). Roads are scarce, so hire a helicopter or a heli-outfitter such as Lost World Tours (011-7-4152-198328).

10. Sakurajima  |  3,668 feet
Kyushu Island, Japan

Sakurajima erupted in 1914 and dumped more than three billion tons of lava into the 230-foot-deep strait between the volcano and Kyushu Island, creating an isthmus. These days, it's illegal to climb any of Sakurajima's three steaming cones, so either ride the tourist bus or pedal the 24-mile road around the mountain on a rental bike (you can find both at the Kyushu Island ferry terminal).

GETTING THERE: From Tokyo, fly to Kagoshima, and then take a 15-minute ferry to Sakurajima. Japan Visitors Bureau: 212-757-5640.

11. Yasur  |  1,184 feet
Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Hire a jeep in the island's main city of Isangel, and drive over lava rock up Yasur's southeast flank, or scramble two miles and 1,000 feet up its northeast side from the ocean. Either way, 300 feet from the caldera's rim is as close as you want to get—owing to the sprays of lava and steam, and the bombs of magma, rock, and even glass that shoot from Yasur's vent every few minutes. Brisbane, Australia-based Volcano Trek outfits three-day trips (011-64-2-66-464305;www.volcanolive.com).

GETTING THERE: Fly to Nadi, Fiji, then to Port-Vila, Vanuatu (Air Pacific, 800-227-4446), and then to Isangel (Vanair, 011-67-8-25045).

12. Mount Erebus  |  12,448 feet
Ross Island, Antarctica

The ten-mile route to the summit of Mount Erebus—22 miles from McMurdo Station—isn't technical per se, but the 40-below temperatures do make it a daunting jaunt. The reward, once atop the summit plateau, is a view of a 750-foot-wide lake of bubbling orange lava inside Erebus's crater, 40-foot-tall ice towers created by steam freezing before it evaporates, and cool ice tunnels, also sculpted by bursts of steam.

GETTING THERE: Adventure Network International (011-44-1494-67-1808) custom-outfits expeditions to Antarctica for a starting price of $25,000 per person, which includes airfare from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Kayaking Bhutan

Data

Number of kayakers signed up to run Bhutan's Pa River in the 13-day Excellent Adventures expedition this November:
8

Previous descents of the Pa:
0

Elevation at put-in, in feet:
14,500

Elevation at take-out, in Footfreezer Canyon:
8,500

Percentage of rapids graded Class V or higher:
100

Percentage thought to be runnable:
80

Average age of kayakers:
35.4

Average years of experience:
18.1

Approximate water temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit:
33

Number of horses needed to transport gear to put-in:
15–20

Percentage chance someone will suffer altitude sickness:
25

Max. flow of river during descent, in cubic feet per second:
1,000

Factor by which flow can change depending on monsoon rains:
10

Approximate number of Westerners who've kayaked in Bhutan since 1980:
75

Of those, number who've scored first descents:
20

Number who've died:
1

The First Snowboard Descent of Half Dome

"BASE jumping it would probably have been safer," says Jim Zellers, recalling his snowboard descent of Yosemite's 8,842-foot Half Dome last March—a first that he'll be recounting in a series of slide shows around the West this winter. No kidding: Had the three-inch veneer of snow and ice peeled off the 47-plus-degree pitch (a scenario Zellers witnessed just in time to scuttle his third attempt on the Dome the previous year) the 4,300 feet of vertical to his left would have furnished a swift, albeit scenic, death. Ice ax in hand, crampons on feet, and split snowboard on back, the 36-year-old professional boarder ascended alongside the cabled hiking route established in 1875 by Scotsman George Anderson, who hoped to charge tourists a toll to use it. Once on top, he pushed off and stuck what he calls "the most challenging and precise turns of my life" down the 840 vertical feet on the east side of the Dome leading to a saddle (the rock's other sides fall off sharply). Then he climbed up and did it again. To hear him tell it, check www.thenorthface.com for dates and locations.

Sunny Also Rises

After 14 years of trying, pro surfer Sunny Garcia is poised to take the world title

With Kelly Slater now retired, the best competing surfer on the planet today is named Vincent Sennen Garcia III, but you can call him Sunny. Lest you get the wrong idea, "Sunny" applies to the current pro-tour ratings leader in the same way enormous pig farmers tend to be called "Tiny." The 30-year-old Oahu native—who rides into this November's Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of three contests on Oahu's North Shore, with his sights set on his first world title—describes his surfing style as that of a "big ogre," and his tenacity and temper have earned him a reputation as a prickly character: After a final-round loss to Australian Mick Campbell in July's Bluetorch Pro at Huntington Beach, California, he blasted the Aussie for characterizing American surfers as pathetic. "If we're all pathetic," he told reporters, "I'd hate to see what he sees when he looks in the mirror."

Chalk it up to competitive overdrive. "I hate losing," says Garcia. "Plain and simple, I just like to beat people." He's been doing that for years—Garcia joined the pro tour at 16 and hasn't finished out of the top ten for a decade—but this season he's finally giving the whole field a whupping: At press time, he was leading the rankings. This month, he will apply his ferocious drive to the sport's final showdown. He can't wait. "Eight feet at Backdoor Pipeline, offshore, northwest swell—that's my perfect wave," he says. "In the world of surfing, unless you've done something in Hawaii, you haven't really done anything."

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