Sport: That's Gunther to You, Pal

Outside magazine, January 1998

Sport: That's Gunther to You, Pal

How we can all live out our Olympic fringe-event fantasies
By Bill Donahue

James Owen Merion Roberts, 1916-1997

"Sherpas give trekking agents in Nepal a most unfair advantage over their counterparts in other parts of the Himalayas," Jimmy Roberts once boasted — and few would know better than he. The British explorer single-handedly invented the concept of "trekking" in 1964 when he founded Mountain Travel, the world's first adventure-travel company, in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was a business for which he was perfectly suited. Following a stint in World War II, Roberts became the first Westerner to explore Nepal's Annapurna region; in 1965 he led the first guided tour to the base of Everest. When Roberts died in Nepal last November at the age of 81, Sherpas said good-bye to one of their staunchest advocates. "Jimmy started trekking as a massive employment project for the Sherpas," explains longtime friend Al Read, co-owner of San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions. "It was his way to thank them for everything they'd done for him." Says three-time Everest summiter Pertemba Sherpa, who worked for Roberts for 18 years, "I learned the tricks of the trade from him. He was our guru."

Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta

We remember it warmly, which is a little odd: the wintry joy of zipping through fresh snow on granddad's toboggan. Powder kissing your face, red scarf waving a long good-bye. Well, brace yourself. A giant multinational company now aims to turn cocoa-fueled backyard sledding into a high-stakes, high-adrenaline endeavor.

Witness the 1998 Bell Atlantic Luge Challenge, which will be staged at six northeastern ski areas, including Stratton Mountain and Waterville Valley, beginning this month. For an unabashedly competitive weekend at each of these resorts, the public will be invited to careen down a twisting 400-yard course on a bona fide Laser Luge as Olympic coaches and athletes hover nearby, barking instructions. Riders will be timed on a clock accurate to the thousandth of a second, and slowpokes will be publicly shamed via an electronic scoreboard. "Who knows?" enthuses Bell Atlantic spokesperson Michael Kornfeld, "Maybe one of the competitors will turn out to be a future Olympian."

Or maybe not. The Luge Challenge is, by Olympic standards, a decidedly junior varsity endeavor. Laser Luges are plastic — and hence lighter — than standard steel luges. They only go about 30 miles per hour, as opposed to a professional's 90, and the courses will be relatively gentle — carved into the snow rather than coated with ice. Still, the best of these weekend heroes will get a rare chance to play Olympian for a day: The winner at each of this winter's Challenges earns an all-expenses-paid trip to Lake Placid and a slide down the 1980 Olympic luge run on a brand-new contraption called the Luge Rocket. "Basically," explains Dmitry Feld, spokesman for the U.S. Luge Association, "you lay down in this little capsule, you pray, and then you go."

E A R   T O   T H E   G R O U N D
"We tried carrot tops, peanut tops, tomato tops, cabbage leaves, rhododendron, watermelon leaves, grape leaves, maple leaves, hickory leaves, and celery. We went through 200 different plants, but we kept coming back to lettuce."

Puzant Torigian, on the development of Bravo, a nicotine-free cigarette made of salad greens. Torigian, who lost his life's savings when he first marketed lettuce cigarettes in the 1960s, is currently relaunching the product.

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