Tough Trips Guide

So, feeling like a plunge down a Himalayan river, a race up the face of a Patagonian spire, or a ski expedition to the North (or South—that's O.K. too) Pole? Feeling a little scared? That's why we call them Tough Trips.

Go On, We Dare You

Whatever agonies and miseries the sufferer may endure on his pilgrimage to the heights, and however often he may swear never to return there, longing to do so is certain to recur.
—C. F. Meade, British mountaineer

Attention adrenaline junkies: if you're already a veteran antarctic ski expeditioner, or if your mountaineering resume lists a half-dozen Himalayan climbs, or if you can boast a handful of first descents on long-lost rivers in the Amazon, skip this introduction and go directly to our travel roster beginning on page 62.

As for the rest of us, let's be honest. Hard-core adventureis something we've merely brushed up against in the course of shorter, less exacting voyages. Such journeys are bracing, but they won't revolutionize your life. For that, you need to push yourself a step or two beyond what you thought you could do—and then push a little farther. You need to go through the kinds of trials that produce what climbers call the North Wall Look:the stare that says you've been to the edge and survived. In other words, you need to take a Tough Trip.

Tough Trips require months of training, research, and discipline—and then they pay you back with hardship, sore muscles, and second thoughts. But somewhere along the way—say, after you've ascended Denali's West Rib or skied the face of the Grand Teton—you may catch a glimmer of the sublime.

To give you a sense of the options laid out before you on this less-traveled road, and to help you tackle some key questions (Guide or no guide? Will I need a satellite phone? What, exactly, do the words "forbidden zone" mean?) we've assembled the hardest adventures we could find and tapped the brains of a few of our favorite writers who have been there and back. These journeys span the globe, so get out your atlas. And remember, going the distance is only half the fun. The other half isn't so much about the sacrifices or the miseries you endure, but the sense of having touched something so far out in the world, and yet so deep in your core, that you can't wait to get out there and do it all over again.

The Tough Trips Guide

Mountaineering
Patagonia
Alaska
Bolivia

Wildwater Paddling
Bhutan
Greenland
California

Trekking
Peru
India
Canada
New Zealand

Ski Mountaineering
The Tetons
British Columbia
Maine

Expedition Biking
China

The Continental Divide

Polar Exploration
The North Pole
The South Pole

Tough Parables

William T. Vollman: The Bell-like Ping of Freezing Sweat
Peter Stark: Really Tough Love
Holly Morris: In the Land of the Leech
Mark Jenkins: The Unguided Route
Denis Johnson: Wing-Tips in the Mire

Mountaineering

Storming the Citadel

Scaling Patagonia's Torres del Paine
OUTFITTER: Aventuras Patagonicas; 888-203-9354; www.patagonicas.com
COST: $5,500*
DATES: November 14 December 5, 2000

*Prices throughout do not include airfare.

About 150 miles north of the Straits of Magellan on Chile's Patagonian ice cap soars a set of 8,000-foot pink granite teeth that are perhaps the closest Mother Nature has come to creating a scream in stone. If the prospect of scaling these spires—the Torres del Paine—isn't sufficient to inspire religious conversion, the savagery of the wind will at least leave you convinced that the Almighty is one hell of a housekeeper. Locals say la escoba de Dios, the "broom of God," sweeps this landscape—a fitting metaphor for the 100-mile-per-hour gusts that routinely lash climbers clinging to the Torres' walls. "That's the way it goes in Patagonia,"shrugs Rodrigo Mujica, director of the Jackson, Wyoming­based guiding company Aventuras Patagonicas. "Every day, you get your ass kicked."

To summit any of these peaks on your own, you need to be a highly proficient aid climber with plenty of rock experience in rain, sleet, and snow. If you come up short on these requirements and don't have the time to acquire highly developed aid-climbing skills through a lengthy apprenticeship, then you need a guide like Mujica, a 36-year-old Chilean-American mountaineer who plans to take clients up the Central Tower, the most demanding and exposed of the tower routes, this winter.

"It takes a special kind of person to do this," admits Mujica. And for good reason. With crux moves up to 5.10c/A2, only strong climbers need apply for the privilege of attacking the 19 pitches (six to high camp, 13 more to the summit). "It can be very, very scary," adds Mujica, who also guides difficult trips in Antarctica (see Polar Exploration, page 78). And just as invigorating: "I learned I was a lot stronger than I thought," says Patrice Spencer, a 5.11 climber who hired Mujica to guide her up the neighboring North Tower in December 1999. "Up there, you can't afford to think, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?'" And agood thing, too. He'd never hear you over the wind.

NEXT TIME, TRY:

Climbing Denali's West Rib
OUTFITTER: Mountain Trip; 907-345-6499; www.mountaintrip.com
COST: $5,000
DATES: June 7, 2000 and June 7, 2001

Yeah, yeah, we know: North America's highest, coldest, and most famous peak is so well-trodden that tackling it may strike hard-core innovators as a bit of a cliché.Last year alone, 1,183 climbers attempted Mount McKinley. But only someone who's never gaped at its 20,320-foot summit and witnessed the ferocity of its storms, which routinely reduce tents to Taco Bell style lettuce shreds, would dismiss Denali as passé. So if you're looking for that extra measure of challenge, stick with Denali, but bypass the popular West Buttress/Washburn Route and take a crack at the West Rib.

The route, Alaskan Grade 4, shoots up 8,400 feet in roughly two miles, and has technical sections of mixed rock and ice, as well as ice couloirs and an airy ridge at 16,500 feet. Last year it saw only 60 climbers—18 of whom actually summited. Because the Rib is far more exposed than the West Buttress, it can be extremely dangerous (at 17,000 feet, the route intersects a notorious chute tactlessly called The Orient Express, where eight Asian climbers have fallen to their deaths). But when the weather holds, the challenges can provide one of the most satisfying ascents in all of North America. And best of all, you'll probably have the entire thing to yourself. "It's a beautiful climb," says Alaska-based Mountain Trip guide Gary Bocarde, who's done the Rib five times. "Hopefully, you won't get blown off it."

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

Traversing Bolivia's Mount Illimani
WHEN TO GO: August

Looming over the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, Mount Illimani is more massif than mountain. While many have climbed 21,201-foot South Peak, the highest of Illimani's five summits, only two groups have ever linked all five peaks (the lowest of which is 20,042 feet). The ten-mile traverse on an exposed ridge was hailed by Yossi Brain, the foremost authority on Bolivian climbing who was killed in an avalanche last year, as "the longest and most impressive mountaineering expedition in Bolivia." And it's easy to see why. The ridge, a beautiful blade that separates the country's arid altiplano from its steamy jungles, rarely dips below 20,000 feet, meaning a minimum of three nights of fitful sleep. La Paz is teeming with climbing agencies happy to drive your team the four hours to the trailhead and back for roughly $320. In addition to a solid four-season tent, you'll need a multi-fuel stove that fires reliably at 20,000 feet. Bring lots of non-fatty foods—although once on top, you probably won't feel like eating. At this altitude, the only thing your body wants is down. 

 

SCALING THE TORRES DEL PAINE: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: Climbers will need strong upper bodies to jug pitch after pitch, hauling heavy packs of gear up the wall. A successful summit bid can require 18 solid hours on the rock. Clients must also be fit enough to ferry equipment and foodstuffs up steep terrain to high camp before storms hit.

Mental Fitness: Be ready to come home exhausted, having given it your all for three straight weeks and possibly still not conquered the summit. Those with summit-or-bust attitudes should do themselves a favor and attack something with better odds.

Environmental Challenges: Expect to climb only a few hours a day for most days before the "freight train" winds arrive and spit you off. As an added bonus, the near-freezing to below-freezing temperatures will make your hands ache, but you won't be able to put them in your pockets because you've still got to belay Mujica. His life—and yours—depend on it.

Skills: Although Mujica leads all the pitches, clients must be solid 5.9 climbers. Familiarity with ascenders, daisy chains, atriers, and other aid-climbing equipment and techniques is a must. You've got to know how to clean protection—and how to avoid dropping it while fiddling with frozen hands.

MOUNTAINEERS' READING LIST:

For Inspiration: Annapurna, A Woman's Place, by Arlene Blum. The author chronicles her 1978 all-women expedition to place the first American, and the first woman, on the summit of the world's tenth-highest peak.

For Practical Know-How: Freedom of the Hills, edited by Don Graydon, published by The Mountaineers Books. Acomprehensive primer on all aspects of mountain travel and safety.

To Scare Yourself Silly: Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson. While climbing in the Andes in 1985, Simpson broke his leg, fell off a cliff into a crevasse, was given up for dead by his partner, climbed out, and hobbled for three days back to camp, arriving just before his friends, who had burned his gear, were about to depart. A horrific account of what can go wrong in the mountains.

The Bell-like Ping of Freezing Sweat

Tough Parables

Most of the difficulties I've experienced on expeditions have been the result of my own failures. For instance, when I once passed a couple of weeks alone at the magnetic North Pole in midwinter, I suffered frostbite in my fingers and toes, got haunted by a hallucination of the Angel of Death (who had long brown hair and who cried when I didn't want to go with her), and kept feeling colder and colder and colder, all because the custom sleeping bag I'd ordered, rated (said the manufacturer) to 70 degrees below zero, was no good at 40 below. I had worried about this beforehand when I first laid eyes on the skimpiness of the goose down, but because it had been very expensive and because there was nowhere nearby that was cold enough to really test it, I chose to trust the liars who'd sewn it for me. Most of the responsibility for my discomfort therefore remains mine, and indeed, since my purpose at the Pole was to write about some 19th-century explorers who'd died in those parts, and since, like them, I got a good measure of strangeness and of fright (the sweat freezing nightly under my clothes with an audible, bell-like ping), it all worked out for the best. My sentences at least rang true.

Difficult trips? I never went on one voluntarily—the trip from here on out to my cemetery plot will be difficult enough. But years ago, during the Soviet-Afghan War, I crossed into Afghanistan illegally, and for me that walk remains memorable for a number of reasons: The high green hills near Parachinar, the boulder-choked rivercourses at dawn with the full moon overhead, the snow, the spaciousness, the endlessness—and ahead, the sinisterness—almost overruled my own exhaustion. I was young, and until then had only trespassed upon the premises of nuclear power plants, so breaching the sovereignty of an entire country made me feel awfully excited. I had the notion of helping people (in this case, the Afghan resistance), and so I was prepared to do any number of stupid, thrilling-sounding things that I couldn't have justified in my own name alone. It was a Great Project, you see.

Prepared, did I say? Oh, I might have been in decent shape a month earlier when I arrived in Pakistan, before amoebic dysentery turned me into a walking skeleton, but just as with my sleeping bag, I figured I'd come out all right because somebody promised me I would. That somebody, a well-meaning insurgent, told me that our walk would take us over a little hill. It was supposed to last about three or four hours. It took two days and a night, and involved the ascent of two mountains and an evening descent upon (and through) a rotten glacier. We did not fall far. Trickling snow roofed us as we walked down another stony river. Then the roof became an ice canyon, then melted away altogether as we came into Afghanistan. I had to stop every couple of hours due to diarrhea. Shaking their heads, the mujahideen wondered why Washington hadn't sent a strong American.

I was ashamed then, and still feel embarrassed whenever I think about that walk. I wore good hiking boots; they wore sandals. I got blisters; their feet literally left blood on the rocks. I'd come to take photographs to sell so that I could maybe send them money. They'd come to fight, possibly to die. But they were very happy. They believed that if they were killed by the Soviets, they'd go instantly to heaven. And if they survived, they'd run the Soviets out of their country—which is exactly what happened.

What was I on that trip but an irrelevance? Any notion of challenging oneself in such conditions for purposes of "self-fulfillment" or for any other reason would be laughable. And what did I ever do for the Afghans in the end? Oh, I raised some money—it wasn't enough to buy a Stinger missile, so they endowed an elementary school library.

Challenges make me tired; thrills are evidence of my own incompetence. It's all very interesting to read about, like a true-crime story, but who wants to be a victim of a true crime? Long and exotic trips, on the other hand—why not? If I could, I'd love to go to the moon, and to the bottom of the ocean. In both places Icould kiss the unknown. The danger itself wouldn't interest me; for danger I could play Russian roulette. But to be a human in an inhuman environment would be as glorious as taking one's first step onto the high-school dance floor.

These journeys would be subject to unknown chances, but I'd try to keep them as smooth and steady as I could. I've become a tranquil robot of checklists and routines. If you pack your own parachute instead of letting somebody else do it, then you can aspire to an idyllic free fall. And if matters work out otherwise, it's better to blame only yourself.

William T. Vollmann's fifth novel, The Royal Family, will be published next month by Viking Penguin.

Wildwater Paddling

Riding the Liquid Maelstrom

Paddling Bhutan's whitewater
OUTFITTER: Nantahala Outdoor Center; 888-662-1662; www.nocweb.com
COST: $3,400
DATES: November 12-21, 2000
MILEAGE: 25

In the 18th century, unrepentant Buddhist criminals were manacled, shoved into canvas body bags, and heaved off the balcony of Trongsa dzong, a monastery in central Bhutan. If the deviants survived their plunge down the 3,000-foot black bedrock cliffs to a river called Mangde Chhu, they'd done their penance and were deemed reformed. The cliff-fall is an appropriate metaphor for kayaking that river, according to Don Fowler, a former Nantahala Outdoor Center client from Virginia. "I'd get to the bottom of a rapid and say, 'Thank you, Lord,'" recalls Fowler, who has also kayaked in Nepal and Honduras. "I felt like one of those criminals on just about every river."

Class IV-V Mo Chhu and Puna Tsang Chhu are also steep, punishing, and survived by NOC kayakers partly by the grace of God. The three rivers, which clients paddle in an eight-day period, flow from frigid glacial headwaters at 20,000 feet, gaining speed as they roar through boulder fields toward Bhutan's tropical southern plains. Bees' nests and golden langurs speckle the sheer canyon walls above the upper seven-mile section of the Mangde Chhu. Rhododendron and magnolia forests flank the five miles of the northern Mo Chhu. Rice paddies and deserted orange groves—left by some of the 100,000 Nepalese Hindus who fled ethnic persecution in the early 1990s—grow beside the lower Puna Tsang Chhu and its runnable ten miles.

Below Bailey Bridge on the Puna Tsang Chhu, David Alardice, the guide who pioneered all three river routes in 1997, will point out a hole that even the hubristic should avoid. The cottage-sized hydraulic can "clean nostrils out with the efficiency of a Rug Doctor," he says—with the conviction of someone who's prayed for a second chance.

NEXT TIME, TRY:

Sea-kayaking northwestern Greenland
OUTFITTER: Whitney & Smith; 403-678-3052; www.legendaryex.com
COST: $3,950
DATES: August 19­-September 2, 2000
MILEAGE:66

Preparing to sea-kayak northwestern Greenland is a study in extreme gear. Client must-haves: one pair of knee-high wool-lined Cabela's boots for portaging over the pack ice in Inglefield Fjord; a full-body survival suit to insulate against the 31-degree-Fahrenheit water. Guide must-haves: .44 Magnum for scaring away yellow-tusked rogue walrus and marauding polar bears; ice ax, ice screws, and climbing rope to negotiate frozen beaches. But most often, the ocean and scenery are startlingly serene ... and the hand cannon stays in the Pelican box. The 24-hour sun warms the permafrost enough to bring blueberries into bloom. At the heads of some fjords, pink quartzite walls soar 4,000 feet overhead. And if tempestuous catabatic winds blow, the itinerary allows plenty of time to wait them out in four-season tents.

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

Kayaking California's Kern River
WHEN TO GO: May-July
MILEAGE: 55

When expert boaters finish paddling the headwaters of the Kern in south-central California, they take out where commercial trips put in. The reason: After two days of hiking and four days kayaking 55 milesof secluded Class V whitewater, ten miles of Class IV froth just isn't as appealing as a square meal.

The headwaters are remote and are best run without piggish rafts. Which means that bivy sacks and lots of PowerBars must be stowed in the ends of large-volume creek boats that are then either carried 20 miles over the flanks of 14,494-foot Mount Whitney or packed in by mules over 40 miles of trail to the starting point at Junction Meadows. There the snow-fed Kern flows as steeply as a creek, dropping 200 feet per mile on average, and as powerfully as a river—about 1,500 cubic feet per second is an ideal flow. Since the steep canyon walls and the dense pines often make it difficult to track downriver progress, boaters must rely on topo maps and altimeters to locate the one unrunnable section, a 60-foot cascade. At the bottom of the run, just below the takeout at Johnsondale Bridge, a large road sign directed at riverside picnickers serves as an apt warning to prospective paddlers: "Do not swim. 185 people dead since 1978." For more information, contact the Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School in northern California at 530-462-4772 or www.otterbar.com. 

 

KAYAKING BHUTAN: GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: Prepare for the contortions of technical kayaking with yoga. The extended triangle, lotus, and eagle crunch are especially helpful because they simulate rolling and bracing.

Mental Fitness: Even if the whitewater doesn't scare you, the fact that the nearest advanced medical facility is at least a two-hour walk, four-hour bus ride, and two-hour plane flight away should.

Environmental Challenges: To minimize icy rolls in glacial runoff at 7,000 feet, practice at home on rivers one skill level higher than you'll be running in Bhutan—this means Class V—and get comfortable paddling in gloves and a dry suit.

Skills: Ask yourself, as NOC instructor Bill Hester will ask you, "How do I catch that one-boat eddy in the middle of this Class IV rapid? Do I use a dufekt or a dynamic bow-draw?" In other words, you need skills to handle all types of Class IV rapids: technical creeks, powerful big water, and fast-flowing rivers.

PADDLERS' READING LIST:

For Inspiration: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner. The account of John Wesley Powell's pioneering run of the Colorado River is more dramatic than Powell's own journal—as well as being more comprehensive and accurate.

For Practical Know-How: Kayak: The Animated Manual of Intermediate and Advanced Whitewater Technique, by William Nealy. A must-have.

To Scare Yourself Silly: Awhirl in the Land of Perverse Fun, by David Quammen, Outside, June 1998, A rollicking tale of spooky misadventure and sphagnum moss above Hellfire Rapid on New Zealand's South Island.

Trekking

The Ancient Way

Adventure-running across Peru's Cordillera Blanca
OUTFITTER: Andes Adventures; 310-395-5265; www.andesadventures.com
COST: $2,700
DATES: June 29-July 14
MILEAGE: 140

Why walk the Inca trail when you can run?

Ultramarathoner Devy Reinstein was enjoying a leisurely sprint up the John Muir Trail to the top of California's Mount Whitney one day in 1994 when he was struck by an unusual idea: Why not start a business that combined his loves for his native Peru and for long-distance trail racing? (He's completed more than 15 ultra marathons in the last sevenyears.) The result was Andes Adventures, a travel company whose keystone trip, which Reinstein still offers several times a year and which is always fully booked, includes a 27-mile run that concludes with a spectacular entrance into the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu. Encouraged by the success of this venture, Reinstein recently set out to create an even more challenging adventure-running odyssey: the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash Adventure Run.

"This event is not for everyone," warns Reinstein in what can only be called an ultra-understatement. Clients spend nine of the trip's 16 days jogging 140 miles on rocky trails up, down, and across two mountain ranges in north-central Peru. First comes a three-day, 40-mile "warm-up"run that includes a complete circuit around Huayhuash and through parts of the Cordillera Blanca—at 20,000 feet, the world's highest tropical mountain range. After a mere one-day's rest, clients embark on a five-day, 100-mile loop through the Cordillera Huayhuash, crossing ten 15,000-foot-plus passes through terrain equaled only in the Himalayas: 22,205-foot Mount Huascarán, the highest peak in Peru; 20,846-foot Chopicalqui; Yerupaja, a 21,765 footer; and 20,100-foot Sarapo. Keep in mind that you'll be carting your own emergency clothing, food, and water each day, as well as a radio in case you get separated from the pack. Muleteers provide aid stations stocked with Peruvian cheese sandwiches, coca tea, and other energy foods along every trail; camps await runners at the end of each day. Villagers met along the way greet you warmly, if a little quizzically—nylon tights and chronometers have yet to enter the native Peruvian culture.

NEXT TIME, TRY:

Trekking India's Himachal Pradesh
OUTFITTER: Ibex Expeditions; 541-345-1289; ibexexpeditions@compuserve.com
COST: $3,400
DATES: September 23-October 21, 2000
MILEAGE: 85

If you'd rather spend nine non-VO2-max hours a day on the trail, consider Ibex Expeditions' Unknown Great Himalaya Trek. Veteran trip leader Bruce Klepinger begins this exploratory trip at a barren 13,000-foot trailhead in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and ascends to an 18,000-foot glacier. Participants spend at least a week navigating the snowfields and camping on the ice amid dozens of 20,000-foot peaks before descending into Himachal's rocky Spiti district. Long closed to outsiders, the course crosses parts of an ancient Tibetan-Indian trade route dotted with 2,000-year-old monasteries. The trip also includes an optional six-day extension for those who want to tackle another 18,000-foot pass and wind up on a tributary of the Ganges.

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

The Trans Canada Trail
WHEN TO GO: May-September
MILEAGE: 10,000

When Canada turned 125 years old in 1992, burgeoning national pride led outdoor enthusiasts to dream up an integrated hiking trail running from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Victoria, British Columbia, with a dogleg up to the Arctic. No one has yet tackled the entire route, namely because maps and trail linkages are still in the making. Which means that a unique distinction awaits the intrepid adventurer willing to embark on some seat-of-the-pants route-finding across the third-largest country in the world. "It runs through remote grizzly territory—and be aware of wild cats," warns Geoff Kloos, spokesman for the project. "There also can be hundreds of miles between resupply points." Call the Trans Canada Foundation in Montreal at 800-465-3636.

New Zealand's Te Araroa Trail
WHEN TO GO: December-March
MILEAGE: 1,500

Linking the North Island's Cape Reinga to the tip of the South Island at Bluff, the Te Araroa is so inchoate (it opened in 1998) and untracked (at press time, two British hikers were attempting the South Island section's first test-run) that route-finding and food drops are likely to give as much trouble as any of the 6,000-foot passes and 200 miles of ankle-turning beaches. Complete the route, however, and you'll be rewarded with the most diverse terrain on earth: white-sand coasts, blasted volcanoes, glutinous rainforests, and glacier-carved fjords. In most sections, Appalachian-style huts are available, but tents and food drops are required. Contact the Te Araroa Trust at 011-64-9-378-4873 or www.teararoa.org.nz

 

RUNNING THE ANDES: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: "The trails aren't like those in national parks," says Mike Duncan, a 1998 survivor of the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash Adventure Run. "There are no switchbacks. It's straight uphill." To prepare, he and Reinstein both recommend basic ultraracing training—especially hill-running—with at least one 20-40 mile run each week. The hill work helps develop your quads for the 32,000-foot total elevation gain.

Mental Fitness: "Most important,"says Reinstein, "is doing long runs on back-to-back days. You need a kind of training that builds the body and the mind." That mental toughness will pay off when you're awakened at 5:30 a.m. in subzero temperatures to begin the day's run.

Environmental Challenges: Expect rain, snow, and every other type of precipitation. The route itself can be slick and frozen over, and exhausted runners may be prone to hypothermia in the thin, cold air. Deal with it.

Skills: There's no substitute for logging the miles, and ultramarathon experience is a necessity. The more ultras you've run, the better prepared you'll be during that four-day stretch of running nearly 20 miles per day.

TREKKERS' READING LIST

For Inspiration: The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz. A Polish cavalry officer who was sent to the Soviet gulag in 1939, Rawicz escaped and walked 4,000 miles to India and freedom. It'll put your slog up hypoxic Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail into perspective.

For Practical Know-How: The Complete Walker III, by Colin Fletcher. The standard—and indispensible—trekker's bible.

Really Tough Love

Tough Parables

We were just short of 15,000 feet when I decided that marrying Amy maybe wasn't the right choice after all. Red-cheeked and panting in the thin air, she was slogging up a grassy mountainside in eastern Tibet, fuming at me while coaxing along a small white horse that carried our baggage. Would this be my life—the shouting matches, the angry tears, the all-day silences along the trail? Her eyes blazed angrily as she trudged past. "Screw you!" she hissed. Except she didn't put it quite so politely.

My mother-in-law had warned us, "If your marriage can survive this trip, it can survive anything." The callow optimist, I dismissed this bit of wisdom as a mother's cluckings to protect her daughter from a son-in-law's half-baked schemes. "Naw, it can't be that bad," I replied. "I've made difficult trips before, and so has Amy." Which was true. But we'd never made them together or made them—I could barely utter the words, the concept was so new and strange—as husband and wife.

Married in April, we struck out for the Yangtze River in July. We'd start with a month-long trek along the headwaters and finish 3,000 miles downstream on a passenger boat docking in Shanghai. The point was to write a travel book about the Yangtze and to have an extended honeymoon in the process, though my true motives lay buried in a steamer trunk full of regret, ambition, and other psychic baggage that I unwittingly hauled along. At age 20, during a particularly troubled period of my youth, I'd attempted to reach the remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau and had turned back short of my goal. Now 33 and newly married, I would try again. This time nothing—least of all my wife—would prevent me from getting there.

I first sensed my dimming chances for success late in our first day on the trail while following a small tributary of the Upper Yangtze known to Tibetans as the Belly-Button River. That's when my bride, wielding an upraised spatula, chased our Chinese interpreter out of camp. Introduced to us simply as Little Cheng, he was the sidekick to Mr. Nian, our sullen and authoritarian government liaison officer. The two were contemptuous of both our Tibetan guides ("They never have a bath and they love to drink and fight") and of Amy ("You should do more to cook for your husband and wash his clothes"). That first evening, as she cooked the fish that one of the Tibetans had hooked, the two Chinese insisted on turning up the flame on the gasoline blowtorch they'd provided as a stove. "She ruined the fish!" Little Cheng crowed as dinner was predictably engulfed in a mushroom cloud of smoke. "She is not an expert!"

The second day started badly and turned worse. At breakfast, we ran out of water. As we loaded the yaks and horses, Mr. Nian and Little Cheng ordered the Tibetans about like slaves while tossing their noodle wrappers and empty lunch-meat cans in the meadow grass. We clawed our way up a high mountain ridge covered in fine, shifting talus and on the far side got caught in a thunderstorm. Later, while crossing a rain-swollen stream, Little Cheng slipped from his wooden saddle and tumbled into the rapids.

That evening, as we limped into camp in a yak-herder's corral, Little Cheng turned to me, trembling in anger. "Mr. Peter!" he barked. "Tomorrow Mr. Nian and I go home!" We'd already hit the balking point—when one or more of the party's key participants announce they'll proceed no farther—and we'd barely seen the Yangtze.

The next morning i was sitting on a boulder, lethar-gically dangling a fly rod over the muddy river, when Amy accosted me. She'd asked me to talk to Mr. Nian and Little Cheng about their poor behavior—toward the Tibetans, toward her, toward the trip for which we'd paid a very hefty sum. Now our fledgling marriage assumed the geopolitical tension between an oppressive China and a struggling Tibet. I told her I didn't want to confront the men because I was afraid that Mr. Nian would cancel the trip. "We have to stand up to them," she kept saying. "What they're doing isn't right." I ignored her, concentrating instead on casting my muddler minnow into the river, feeling like an embattled Ricky Ricardo in some high-altitude episode of I Love Lucy.

"You've got a problem between your employees and your wife!" she finally shouted in frustration.

I pretended not to hear. That's when she hurled a water bottle at me. It bounced off the boulder and plopped on the sandy shore, half in the water, as if it couldn't decide—like me—whether to float clear out of this canyon and out of this marriage or stay and stick it out.

I did stick it out, after an epic and hyperventilated argument with Amy up that grassy incline with the white horse in tow. It came down to my simple realization that this was as much her journey as mine, that we were in this together for the long haul. I then confronted Mr. Nian in a dusty stable after his surprise announcement that Amy and I weren't permitted by government order to enter Tibetan villages along this stretch of the Yangtze. "Goddamn it!" I screamed, hurling my notebook into a heap of dried yak dung as a group of nomads looked on in amazement. "This is China!" he shouted back, as if that explained everything. He demanded that I shut up, and when I didn't, he canceled the trek on the spot.

We were nearing its end anyway. Amy and I gladly left Mr. Nian and Little Cheng as soon as legally possible, dropped off the Tibetan Plateau, and made our own way along the Yangtze across China. Five months after we began the trip, we arrived, weary and battle-scarred, in Shanghai. We returned home and I sat down to write my travel book, but after many wobbly attempts I finally put it aside. It's only now, more than a decade and two children since our honeymoon trip, that I've completed the book. And it really has very little to do with the Yangtze River.

Peter Stark edited the anthology Ring of Ice, and wrote Last Breath: Death at the Extremes of Human Endurance. His next book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival, will be published in March 2014 by Ecco.

Ski Mountaineering

The Goal Is Not to Fall

Tetons' Ski and Snowboard Mountaineering Camp
OUTFITTER: Exum Mountain Guides; 307-733-2297; www.exumguides.com
COST: $850
DATES: May 30-June 3, 2000

On June 16, 1971, Jackson resident and Snow King ski school director Bill Briggs skied Wyoming's 13,770-foot Grand Teton. He was the first and he did it alone, without Gore-Tex, avalanche beacon, GPS, or cell phone. In the decades since, the Tetons have become the core of American ski mountaineering, but it's not because they're easy. Jagged and toothy, the Tetons' vertical walls are broken by discontinuous couloirs that in winter are best described as avalanche paths, forcing glisse mountaineers to wait for the warm days and cold nights of spring, when avalanches are more predictable and easier to avoid. Snow conditions range from black ice to perfect corn snow to thigh-deep slush. What's more, all descents of the Grand to date, except one, have involved treacherous rappels over rocks. Missing a turn can mean a 1,000-foot slide and, if you can't self-arrest, death by multiple blunt trauma.

Interested? Sign up for Exum Mountain Guides' five-day ski and snowboard mountaineering camp in the Tetons. You won't necessarily ski the Grand from the summit—in fact, only 100 or so people have since 1971—but if conditions allow, you'll take on some of its lower chutes and bag one or more of its neighbors. The camp holds its first two days at Jackson Hole Ski Resort, where your guides ostensibly teach you steep-skiing technique. In reality, they're screening you. If you can't descend 40-degree slopes with confidence at the resort, you have no business on 50-degree slopes in the backcountry. Which is not to say that you need to be an extreme skier capable of sticking 60-footers either: As guide Kevin Pusey puts it, "When you're seven hours from the nearest road, you always have to ask yourself, 'If I fall here, what's going to happen?'"

The goal of ski mountaineering, after all, is to not fall, a skill mastered by Exum guides like former World Extreme Skiing champion Doug Coombs and Tom Turiano, who has free-heeled more than 50 Teton peaks. Coombs and Turiano focus on the finer points of belayed skiing and rappelling into near-vertical couloirs, while ice-climbing experts like Pusey and avalanche professional Mark Newcomb train you in safe mountain travel. It's your job to pay attention: Your gear may be state-of-the-art, but if your skills aren't at the same level, you'd best restrict your expeditions to the Poconos.

NEXT TIME, TRY:

Skiing the Wapta Traverse
OUTFITTER: Yamnuska; 403-678-4164; www.yamnuska.com
COST: $570
DATES: February 26-March 3, 2001; April 16-21, 2001

Once you've honed your steep-skiing technique in the Tetons, it's time to learn a few more skills in British Columbia. Canadian guide company Yamnuska offers a five-day ski-mountaineering trip outside Lake Louise dubbed the Wapta Traverse. The tour includes two elements you probably didn't encounter in Wyoming: powder snow and glacier travel. While hauling your gear and food from hut to hut, you'll be learning to negotiate crevasses, ice falls, and high cols—skills you'll need for future, unguided trips. A strong group of expert skiers can expect to climb and ski as many as four peaks in five days.

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

Climbing and Skiing Maine's Mount Katahdin
WHEN TO GO: December-April MILEAGE: 17

Forget Tuckerman's Ravine. The skiing's great, but you can pretty much count on being taken out by a drunk "Joey." For bona fide East Coast ski mountaineering, head up to big-shouldered Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park. You and three others must register for the four-day expedition with park rangers at least two weeks in advance, and provide proof of winter climbing experience. You'll need it. You'll start off towing a sled full of gear from the Abol Bridge Trailhead, nine miles from Millinocket, to the Roaring Brook campground, 13 miles away. From there, your party will don crampons and climbing helmets, strap skis to packs, and climb another 4.4 miles above treeline. Most skiers prefer the North and South basins, but try any line you want. For more information, contact Baxter State Park at 207-723-5140. 

 

SKIING THE TETONS: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: Train by hauling a 50-pound pack up 5,000 vertical feet and then skiing back down—with the pack still on.

Mental Fitness: You need to know when it's OK to relax, and when relaxing can be fatal. As the guides say, "Low danger doesn't mean no danger." You'll also have to deal with what Pusey calls "That, 'I can't do this! Why am I here?' inner game."

Environmental Challenges: Expect to work hard and confront terror at 11,000 feet—not exactly Denali or the Himalayas, but high enough to cause hypoxia-related problems for lay climbers.

Skills: This is a camp for expert skiers (fixed and free-heeled) and boarders comfortable riding 40-degree slopes—expert runs at most ski areas—in all snow conditions.

SKI MOUNTAINEERS' READING LIST:

For Inspiration: Teton Skiing: A History and Guide, by Tom Turiano. A turn-by-turn map down some of the steepest first descents in the Tetons, with beta that enables you to follow—if you dare.

For Practical Know-How: Ski Mountaineering, by Peter Cliff. Instruction in all elements of glisse mountaineering, plus detailed intelligence on some of the world's classic routes.

In the Land of the Leech

Tough Parables

At a clinic near my home in Seattle, I watch the eighth silver needle plunge into my arm. "You've come in too late to be protected from dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis," says the nurse, almost delightedly, as she vaccinates me against whatever hell awaits me in the Southeast Asian jungle.

Two weeks, three continents, six airports, and two boat rides later, I'm in Bukit Lawang, at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park in north-central Sumatra, about to schlepp to the park's western side. Back home I was feeling uncomfortable, folded and locked behind a desk. Now I'm hearing about Sumatra's least endangered species: the leech. "Burn them off with a lit cigarette," says Rev, our Indonesian guide, with a flick of his Marlboro.

My traveling companion, Ruthie, and I follow Rev into the park's dense interior, where a wall of almost certainly malarial mosquitoes immediately engulfs us, adding a new layer of irritation to the 100-degree-plus day. Soon I feel a dull pain behind my knee. I look, and it's a slimy brown-and-black tiger leech picked up at the last river crossing, filled to the gills with O-positive. Philip Morris to the rescue.

Our trek should take two weeks. By day three, my skin is burned and peeling and encrusted with sweat and myriad strains of slime. In my mild delirium, I become convinced that I am molting. The miles and days bleed into one another as we hack our way through the sea of vines. Ten days in, I am miserable, awash in self-pity. I am broken.

But the next day, I begin to flick leeches and slap mosquitoes with the thoughtlessness previously reserved for the lowly gnat. I settle into my role as blood donor and inconsequential ingredient of the rainforest, and just as Ido, we breach the jungle's perimeter and come out the other side. Exhausted, Rev and Ruthie and I crawl under our tarp for a final night of writhing and sweating. At 4:45 a.m., with the Muslim call to prayer echoing over the hills from Ketembe, I awake, strangely renewed. I walk up a rise and scale a tall, heavily limbed tree. Up there, looking back over the thick folds of jungle, I feel more alive than I've felt in years. I decide in that moment to quit my job and to chase adventure full-time.

And so I do.

Holly Morris is the creator of the PBS series Adventure Divas (www.adventuredivas.com) and the host of the Discovery Channel's Treks in the Wild World.

The Unguided Route

Tough Parables

Awhile back I was on a travel panel in Berkeley with Richard Bangs, author, adventurer, and founder of Sobek, one of the first and most successful adventure-travel outfitters. We had both been babbling on about the joys of adventure when a young woman stood up and cut us short.

"But how do you actually do an adventure?" she asked.

"Sign up and send your check," joked Bangs, beaming.

"Buy a plane ticket," I retorted.

Half the audience jumped to their feet and a free-for-all ensued. Bangs—whose do-it-yourself credentials are impeccable but who knows the importance of guides—naturally maintained that the best way to take any journey or adventure was to hire an outfitter. Outfitters know the language, the culture, the history, and they have the requisite outdoor skills. Plus they do the dirty work, making all the arrangements so you'll never wind up sleeping in the rain or watching your gear float downriver.

Bangs was correct on all counts, and for flush but flat-out travelers, an outfitter is the answer—especially if your dream adventure involves physical struggle and a healthy element of risk. If you want to climb a mountain but are not a mountaineer, or hope to kayak a river but are not a paddler, you need a guide. Certain trips require such a high level of competence that managing them is beyond the reach of all but the experts and those who pay to be led by them.

That said, I ardently believe that when you hire an outfitter you often cut out something essential from adventure travel. Namely, the entire epic process of adventure, which starts with your first stab at planning and ends when you get your exhausted, mind-blown self back home. It's true that with an outfitter no one gets stuck in a tent on a high desolate pass, no one gets stranded in a remote malarial village, no one gets confused and takes the wrong trail. On the other hand, if you do the trip yourself, you're guaranteed to wind up stuck for the night on that high pass (where you'll see the sunrise that haunts you forever), missing the bus out of that village (where you wind up dancing the night away with the local tribesmen), and taking the wrong trail (down which you meet the fellow-trekker who saves your life and becomes your best friend).

Adventure means embracing both serendipity and disaster, and it happens when you—yes you, no one else—suddenly have to solve a problem in which the wrong move can have dire consequences. So for truly hazardous journeys—or at least until you've learned enough from good teachers and guides to know what you're doing—go with an outfitter. But pay close attention, be a passionate student of outdoor lore, and live for the day you go out and do it all yourself.

Contributing Editor Mark Jenkins writes The Hard Way column.

Expedition Biking

Hell on Wheels

Biking from Kazakhstan to Pakistan
OUTFITTER: KE Adventure Travel; 800-497-9675; www.keadventure.com
COST: $3,345
DATES: July 28-August 19
MILEAGE: 590

As you pick your way through the landslides, washouts, yaks, and myriad other obstacles on the torturous climb to 15,525-foot Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram Highway, you will ponder a dismount. And as you curse and crank through this, the 16th day of your 590-mile slog from Kazakhstan to Pakistan, it won't be the first time you've wavered. Don't succumb. Keep pedaling and think about all that you've accomplished so far. You have biked a total of 35,000 vertical feet through the five major mountain ranges of Central Asia (including three other 10,000-foot-plus passes), all of them on eroded jeep roads and knife-carved singletrack.

You began by breaking in your jet-lagged legs with a relaxed 40-mile ride through the narrow Oyzhaylau Gorge out of Almaty in the foothills of the Tien Shen Range. On day three, facing a 3,500-foot climb to the top of Kazakhstan's Zhambas Pass, you glanced longingly at your six-wheel-drive Russian support vehicle, so bleary-eyed that you almost missed the background views of the 7,000-meter peaks of the Kungay Alatau Range. You survived the ballistic descent from the Mingtur Pass into Kyrgyzstan, clinging to steep, rice-terraced, and scree-sloped canyons. You cycled against fierce headwinds toward Kashgar, China, along an old Soviet-era double electric fence with nothing but a high desert of shocking brown to distract you. And in the half-day's rest allotted for the trip, you gathered strength for a side climb to the 14,000-foot base camp of Mustagh Atah and canvassed the Kashgar markets of a trading oasis that's seen traffic as a Silk Road cloverleaf for more than two millennia.

Now focus again on the Karakoram Highway below your tires—a road that took more than 20 years to build, claiming at least 500 Pakistani and Chinese lives prior to its official opening in 1986. It's widely considered to be one of the largest engineering feats since the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. Still not inspired? Picture the 7,000-foot descent from the top of Khunjerab Pass down through apricot orchards and poplar stands into Pakistan's lush, glacier-carved Hunza Valley. That should do the trick.

OR, DO IT YOURSELF...

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail
WHEN TO GO: May-September
MILEAGE: 2,468

"It's the first time I've had to walk my bike in 20 years," says Brian Martindale, tour director of the Adventure Cycling Association, a Missoula-based bicycle-touring group, about his 74-day, 2,468-mile Great Divide Trail mountain-bike journey last summer. The ride, through public lands over dirt roads from Port of Roosville, on the Montana-Canada border, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, is a challenge, to say the least, and not just because of the climbing (more than 3,000 feet per day) or the constant repairs (chains, spokes, and drivetrains don't fare well on the rutted roads). More taxing, it turned out for Martindale, were the surprises involved in a prolonged, remote cross-country epic: "In New Mexico,"he says, "we hit summer monsoons that left us pushing our bikes through a foot of mud for two days when it was supposed to be warm and dry."

The ACA offers a guided tour, but the Great Divide is ideal for experienced bike tourers who covet self-contained adventure. Detailed maps with geographical information and a directory of grocery stores, bike shops, and post offices to ship bike parts in advance along the route are available from the ACA for $56. And this year's book, Cycling the Great Divide, by Michael McCoy, provides information on suggested riding distances, campsites, and natural history. "But when the monsoons hit," says Martindale, "you're on your own for mud flaps." For more information, contact the Adventure Cycling Association at 800-755-2453 or www.adv-cycling.org. 

 

CYCLING THE KARAKORAM: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

Strength/endurance: "This trip is much more demanding physically than it is technically. It's for people who love their bikes, and spend the bulk of their free time riding," says Dan Hudson, a 1998 veteran of the journey. Two months prior to the trip, try to fit in two high-intensity, short rides and one 40- to 50-mile ride each week.

Mental Fitness: "The catalog description alone does half of our client screening," says Mark Van Alstine, a guide on the 23-day trip. "Then we make sure those interested are as prepared mentally as they are physically." Clients should be adaptable to harsh conditions: washouts, mud slides, closed passes, and 30-mile-per-hour headwinds.

Environmental Challenges: The trip runs in midsummer, but at 10,000 feet, a wide range of conditions is possible, from Death Valley heat to full-on blizzards.

Skills: Ability to balance on two wheels required.

EXPEDITION BIKERS' READING LIST:

For Inspiration: Bicycling Across Siberia, by Mark Jenkins. The whirlwind account of four Russians' and three Americans' 7,000-mile, five-month ride from the Sea of Japan to Leningrad.

For Practical Know-How: Bicycle Touring: How to Prepare for Long Rides, by Steve Butterman. A concise tutorial that answers all your burning questions in 88 pages. Pound-for-pound, it's the best book on the subject.

Wing-Tips in the Mire

Tough Parables

I'm trying to remember all the wonderful gear I carried with me on a hike I took into the bush in Mindanao, in the Philippines, to interview a rebel leader, or dato, named Mantokan. The dato, who had been subsisting on pilfered livestock and meager tribute in the jungles of the big southern island for a dozen years, led a ragged pack of Muslim separatist guerrillas who took potshots at whatever and whoever represented the government at the time. It was a slow, simmering uprising that had never quite been put down, not even after an all-out bombing campaign during the latter years of Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship, in which tens of thousands of Mindanaoans perished.

I had what I needed to make it in and out comfortably, or so I theorized. Nothing very fancy: a Ziploc bag holding a pound of my homemade instant energy drink (equal parts powdered milk, Nescafé, protein powder, and chocolate-flavored Nestlé's Quik), a few ounces of powdered Purex laundry bleach (for disinfectant), notepads made of rainproof paper, and even a NASA-designed pen that could write in zero-gravity conditions, just in case. I had a sharp hat, too, one of those Australian hats with a brim that snaps. And I was in shape. I'd been training for months, lifting weights and backpacking in the hills of northern California. Days before boarding the plane for the Philippines, I'd taken a five-mile trail with a full pack over mountainous terrain in under an hour. Never before had I been so fit, and never since.

The plan seemed simple at the time. I'd made arrangements to hook up with a pair of guides in a tiny mountain hamlet called Ang-gaan, which was a ten-mile hike from my base of operations, the village of Damulog, in central Mindanao. On the first day I would have to carry everything I'd brought with me to the islands, not more than 20 pounds in all. Once I reached Ang-gaan I would shed a few pounds before starting the hard part, a long march further into the mountains. As it turned out, I trudged through such a succession of tropical downpours and encountered so much mud in that first, putatively easy ten-mile stretch that I felt obliged to discard my canvas hiking shoes in Ang-gaan and put on my dry ones, a pair of street shoes. Wing-tips, as a matter of fact. The next morning I hiked into the jungle hills prepared for any social occasion.

My guides were Roberto Saliling, the headman of Ang-gaan, and Siawan Mantawil, an uncle of Mantokan. The old uncle had the flat, weary features of a very wise Eskimo. Both he and Roberto were shrunken and nearly meatless—almost, you might say, like animated mummies. They were each close to 60, but still they moved right along. Roberto carried a liter-size Coke bottle full of water on a string, and Siawan carried a spear. They brought nothing else.

Judging by a map I'd bought in Manila at a store where women sat at tables drawing them out by hand with colored pencils, my rendezvous point with Mantokan on the Polangi River lay 25 to 30 miles away. The jungle people we met were curious about where I was going. "Don't go to the Polangi River," they all told me. "You'll meet vampires. Witches. They have malaria and diseases. You can be kidnapped by the Tad-tad"—a twisted Christian sect whose name meant "chop-chop." I didn't worry about any of this because I trusted my guides to keep me safe. And anyway, I'd lived in Manila for half my childhood without getting bit by malarial mosquitoes or vampires.

For the first five miles, we hiked along a wide path beaten smooth by carabao hooves. It narrowed gradually until we were holding our arms to our chests to keep from being sliced by thorns. Soon the path became a figment in Uncle Siawan's mind. No getting away from the thorns now, and the blood ran down our arms. The general rhythm was up and over one small mountain after another. The ground was an aggressive and savage red muck as fully alive as the plants growing out of it, really maniacal stuff that clung to my shoes, building up under the soles, clambering over the sides and engulfing me up to the ankles. It didn't dissolve in water and couldn't be swished away in a creek. I struggled along with my wing-tip footwear encased in two massive red cakes as heavy as concrete. Meanwhile Siawan and Roberto, barefoot, floated along like a couple of ghosts.

About 12 miles in we waded into a sea of chest-high elephant grass with a six-inch-wide path cut through it, somewhere in the region of our feet. Now, in addition to the mud underfoot, we had the sun overhead. I perspired in torrents. My khakis were sopping, my pockets full of sweat. I filled my jug at every creek, and still it was always empty. I knew I was drinking too much—it was making me queasy. Siawan and Roberto took only an occasional mouthful from their liter bottle and spat it out.

"You shouldn't drink from the streams," Roberto told me. "There are people using the stream for bathroom."

I wasn't listening. If it did kill me—good! A little rest!

Coming up a rise not a mile from the camp where we were to meet Mantokan, my legs suddenly turned to mush and I collapsed and fainted. The two 60-year-olds hoisted me upright, got my arms around their tiny shoulders, and dragged me up the hill to a level spot where I could lie down and recover while they stood around chatting and smoking cigarettes rolled from some foul leaf.

I got no article that trip. I made the last mile, but Mantokan never showed. We spent three days and nights in a barn with two dozen emaciated young Muslim guerrillas, at least half of whom were down with a vicious strain of malaria. Out behind their makeshift barracks were 30 or 40 fresh graves.

With the help of Roberto and Siawan, I made it back to Damulog, and by a series of lucky flukes I snagged buses, jeeps, and jets in quick enough succession to get me home to northern California before the intestinal microbes struck. While waiting for pills in a local clinic, I got the chills. Then I discovered I was pissing blood. I spent nine days in the cardiac care unit of a Santa Rosa hospital with malaria, hepatitis, and dysentery. It was a good three months before I was able to get out of my sickbed and start looking for fresh ways to embarrass myself.

Denis Johnson is the author of Jesus' Son and Fiskadoro, among other works. His new novel, The Name of the World, is out this month from HarperCollins.

Polar Exploration

The Vanishing Point

Skiing to the North Pole
OUTFITTER: The Polar Travel Company; 011-44-1364-631-470; www.polartravel.co.uk
COST: $45,000
DATES: Feb 25-May 18, 2001
MILEAGE: 690

By the time U.S. Navy Admiral Robert E. Peary boasted of having become the first person to reach the North Pole, on April 6, 1909 (a claim that's still disputed), he had made a total of six attempts, during which he ended up eating his weaker dogs and losing eight toes to frostbite—two of which he broke off while removing his socks. Today, getting to the top of the world isn't nearly so traumatic.Guests on a standard trip aboard a nuclear-powered ice-breaking cruise ship have access to a sauna on the way up, and then they can shake mittens at the champagne-and-barbecue celebration on the ice once they arrive. But for those seeking a more challenging experience that still won't entail dining on doggie or losing digits, British polar guide Pen Hadow's premiere spring 2001 ski odyssey from Cape Arkticheskiy, Russia, to the Pole and a flight back might be the way to go.It'll take you two months and span more than 690 miles. And for every step of the journey, you'll be hauling a 225-pound sledge loaded with fuel, comestibles, tents, and other pieces of gear designed to prevent you from becoming a permanent part of the landscape.

The trip will merge the misery of Sisyphus with the mission statement of a Grand Canyon pack mule. After a nine-hour day hauling your baggage over, say, 11 miles of ice, followed by a night shivering with your tentmates in minus-40-degree cold, you might wake to discover that wind-driven pack ice has transported your heavy kit and your exhausted caboodle seven miles back south—sometimes all the way to where you were the previous morning. Pushing northward again—and again and again and again—takes perseverance.

And flexibility. "The only thing predictable about skiing to the North Pole is that it's unpredictable," says Caroline Hamilton, who collaborated with Hadow on a North Pole trip in 1997. "Just when you start to relax, something happens." A beautiful day transmogrifies into a soul-numbing whiteout; ice ahead of you buckles into an insurmountable ridge. But the blend of uncertainty, hardship, and challenge can offer an elixir far more intoxicating than cheap champagne, says Hadow, a 12-year veteran of polar travel who traces his love of the Arctic to his childhood caretaker, Nanny Wigley, who also looked after famed polar explorer Sir Robert F. Scott's son. The agonizingly slow progress also means you'll have time to discover, digest, and appreciate the Arctic's subtle aesthetics: the vibrancy of total silence, the adamantine clarity of a polar dawn, ice blocks carved into abstract shapes that Henry Moore would envy. "You'd think going to the pole would be all white, but it's not," says Hamilton. "You see so much blue. It's incredibly beautiful, that nothingness."

NEXT TIME TRY:

Skiing to the South Pole
Aventuras Patagonicas; 888-203-9354; www.patagonicas.com
November-December 2000

Although 17th-century mapmakers called Antarctica "Terra Australis Incognita"—the Unknown Southern Land—skiing to the bottom of the world is less of a mystery than reaching its polar opposite. No decisions about which way to go around frigid leads, no drifting ice. Point your skis south, and south you'll go. That's not to say, however, that skiing halfway across the world's highest, driest, and coldest continent is easy. Rodrigo Mujica, the owner of Jackson, Wyoming-based Aventuras Patagonicas, plans to lead a group on a 600-mile, 60-day unsupported ski expedition from the foot of the Ellsworth Mountains to the South Pole during the austral summer. In addition to the continent's ever-present cold (minus 25 isn't rare) and blinding windstorms, clients will encounter a level of bleakness unmatched anywhere else on the planet. "There's nothing for hundreds of miles," Mujica admits. "It can make you crazy."

DON'T DO IT YOURSELF

Only veterans have the experience to overcome the myriad dangers in the world's polar regions, where the learning curve is steep and where falling off it means you'll probably die. Upshot: Go with a guide, or don't go at all.

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