It's not enough to be at the forefront. In an era when everything has supposedly been done, these adventure icons ignore convention, court risk, and let their passion lead the way.
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[42, NEW YORK CITY]
You were in Port-au-Prince less than 24 hours after the quake. With a tragedy of this scale, where do you start?
You just turn the camera on and open your eyes. No matter what direction you move, you keep the camera rolling. It's all happening in real time and goes on for days like that. Each morning you go out and think, OK, I'm going to look for a rescue, or, I'm going to go to a cemetery, but invariably you never get there, because so much comes across your path.
Do you sleep?
The first couple of days, you really don't. You shoot all day, and spend the nighttime editing and writing. But frankly, you don't think about that stuff, because it's so overwhelming.
Watching your reports, it seemed like anger might have become the dominant emotion among Haitians.
I think first there's the shock and horror of it all, and then you see how things play out. It doesn't get better, and the local government is completely not meeting the needs of its citizens, so there are a lot of things that anger people. Those are the people we talk to all day long. It's not so much what I think about it; it's more what I'm hearing from people. Why are people dying stupid deaths? A child doesn't need to die from an infection from a broken leg.
Is part of your role to broadcast that rage?
It's not so much that I'm broadcasting rage. I'm there to bear witness to what's happening. There's really nothing sadder than a child dying and no one knowing the suffering and pain of the loved ones left behind. And I think there's value in documenting that and giving voice to it.
There's been criticism directed at you and some of your CNN colleagues for overstepping your roles as objective journalists and getting involved in the story. At one point, you jumped into a crowd of looters to pull out an injured boy.
To be in places before relief workers are there: That presents some unique challenges. You suddenly find yourself in a situation where, say, you're a doctor—what do you do? There are some journalism purists who say that you do nothing, that you just go watch and report, and I certainly understand that. But in the case of the little boy [in Haiti] who got hit in the head with a cement block, no one was helping him. He couldn't get up. He'd try to get up and collapse. Blood was pouring from his head…It was a split-second decision to take him out of the situation. I think anyone would have done the same thing if they had the opportunity.
What kinds of stories make you want leave the studio and jump on a plane?
I tend to be drawn to stories that aren't on people's radar. When I was a kid, I used to look at old maps with unexplored regions. I find it interesting that with all the technology we have today, there are still places that don't make headlines. The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one I've traveled to report on a lot. There are six million people who have died in the Congo in the past ten years. It's the deadliest conflict since World War II, but very few people know much about it. It's truly horrific.
We ran a piece recently by Nicholas D. Kristof, arguing for the need to find hopeful stories within a tragedy to get people's attention. Is that something you try to do?
I believe in telling the reality of what's happening. And some nights there isn't much to be hopeful for. But even the first day after the quake in Haiti, before the rescue crews got there, [we filmed] people rescue a little girl. That was a positive thing.
What effect do the things you witness have on you personally? Is it traumatic?
There was a time when I first started, when I made a fake press pass and borrowed a camera and headed into wars, and for three years that was the only kind of story I was interested in doing. It definitely takes a toll. You have to be very conscious of its effects and try to take a break when you need to.
There's also the inherent danger you're dealing with for prolonged periods.
I'm far more acutely aware of my surroundings than my friends who have regular jobs. I'm acutely aware of who's around and what the possibilities are. It changes the way you see your surroundings. But I don't seek out dangerous situations. I'm pretty much a chicken. Truly, I don't believe [my team has] taken any risks.
What about when you were younger?
My first three years, I can't believe some of the things I did. The idea of going to Somalia alone, not having a place to stay or security. I was 23 or 24. There was fighting between different clans in the city. I literally landed on the airstrip and had no idea about the town. A truckload of gunmen approached me, and I ended up hiring them as my gunmen, and we went around to the burial grounds where all these bodies were being dumped, and there were all these empty pits. I was thinking, They could just shoot me and put me in a pit and no one would ever know.
Were you just naive?
I don't think I was naive; I just didn't allow fear to stop me from going to a place. I don't believe you should be ruled by fear in anything in your life. I don't like anything that scares me, and I prefer to face it head-on and get over it. Anyone who says they're not scared is a fool or a liar or both. I just don't want that fear in my stomach to be part of my life, so I work to eliminate it.
Some of the athletes we talk to seem to crave the adrenaline that goes with fear.
I think it's a little different. I have no interest in jumping out of an airplane, or any of the things people do for thrills to push their limits and all that. To me, that seems foolish, and there's no point. If people are suffering in a place, to me, it's not a question of whether I'm going to go or not, it's a question of how fast can I get there?
Adventure Icon: Ivan Watson
Cooper isn't the only guy in a tight T-shirt reporting live from Haiti these days. CNN recently poached Ivan Watson from National Public Radio. Here's his take on the crisis in Haiti:”You don't have someone you can be angry at in Haiti. There's little more you can do than shake your fist at the sky. This is real 'wrath of God' stuff. Yesterday they gave me a mandatory day off. I wasn't allowed to work. You go at a sprint for five days, and then your body starts to deteriorate. I've never covered anything this big—the amount of human suffering, the loss. It was so overwhelming that I couldn't process it at first. But then it became clear that it was a duty to get some word out about this place. The only way I could deal with the bodies stacked up was to put on the journalistic lens. The scale of the damage was so huge that I couldn't pretend to pitch in. There was a girl who was in trouble, and I didn't drop everything to help. We reported on her and we were running from one place to another. I checked up on her later and didn't expect this little girl to die. If it had happened three days later, and I had been capable of understanding what the hell was going on, I would have tried to do everything to save this trapped girl but…didn't. It will haunt me forever.”
Adventure Icon: Sonnie Trotter
[30, SQUAMISH, B.C.]
A lot of climbers drill permanent safety bolts into the rock every six or seven feet, but we're going back and doing trad routes the way they would've been done back in the seventies. We've nicknamed it “retro-trad.” Some outstanding climbs would've never been bolted if they weren't 5.14. Only now, climbing that hard on trad gear—stoppers, cams, and nuts that are placed into cracks and then removed—is relatively normal. So that's what we're doing. When I was 16, I saw footage of Peter Croft doing a climb like this in Yosemite. It was a 5.13 finger crack, and it had bolts on it. He ignored them. It just seemed to make sense to me. You can turn a lot of sport climbs into really dangerous trad climbs, but I'm looking for lines with big, bold features—the ones that scream out from across the valley. Maybe they have history. These I find worthy of the challenge. And, of course, they help me hone my skills for my own first ascents.
Trotter, who's climbed trad routes as hard as 5.14c, spent March establishing new routes on Mexico's 2,500-foot El Gigante.
Adventure Icon: Lynsey Dyer
[28, JACKSON HOLE]
The more skiing becomes a job, the less you get to ski for fun. I used to feel like I had to prove myself all the time. It was kind of like “Hold my beer. Watch this.” It's always good to stomp those giant airs, but the skiing part has become underappreciated. A lot of the time, just getting to the cliff is the burliest part of the line, the part that shows whether you're a legit skier. When you watch somebody ski fluidly from top to bottom, that's what makes you want to go do it. Most of the big lines I've skied so far have been around Jackson. But there's nothing like Alaska. I've put a lot of time in up there but still haven't gotten my dream opportunity. All the guys are champing to get up there. They have seniority and dictate what's going on—whether you get on a helicopter that's going to the best places. I just want to keep putting my time in, so when I get the call I'm ready. When women are given a chance, you'll be impressed.
Dyer, a former Junior Olympic gold medalist, left racing to ski the biggest cliffs and steepest faces for the cameras of Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research. She's the co-founder of shejumps.org, which aims to increase female participation in sports.
Adventure Icon: Reid Stowe
There are many reasons I decided to do this voyage, but they've changed a lot since I first conceived of it, in 1986, and left land in 2007. I've been at sail for more than a thousand days now—the longest sea voyage without resupply in history. But I still have months and months to go, so I can't celebrate. I'm trying not to look ahead, but right now it seems as if I don't have a home. This boat is the only home I have, and it's been beaten up in every way. At the beginning of the voyage, I was hit by a ship on autopilot, so I've sailed this whole time with a partially disabled boat. I capsized at one point, but I kept going. In a way, I succeeded through the power of love, because if you truly love what you're doing, you can succeed at whatever you do. I've learned a lot about myself by being separated from society for so long. I've learned that we as humans must explore. We must see and discover new things or we degenerate. My hope is that this voyage will inspire people to overcome their fears and follow their dreams—to explore. I kept going because I had to. What else could I do?
Stowe was on day 1,003 at sea when we reached him via sat phone. He'd been sailing back and forth between the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. He plans on docking his 70-foot schooner, Anne, at New York City this June.
Adventure Icon: Lewis Gordon Pugh
I started out wanting to swim in places where nobody had swum before: Antarctica, the Arctic, all the bloody-cold places. I wanted to be a pioneer, a descendent of Scott and Amundsen, except an explorer of the oceans. I think I was born to swim, but standing on the ice edge at the North Pole in just a Speedo and goggles, I was terrified. You dive in and the water's 28 degrees—colder than what killed the Titanic's passengers—and it's like a death zone. It feels like somebody punched you in the stomach. You cannot breathe. Your skin is on fire. But doing this also gives me an opportunity to shake the lapels of world leaders who aren't taking the environment seriously. In 2008, I swam north of Spitsbergen and was so shocked by how thin the sea ice had become I called Gordon Brown on my satellite phone. We had a long chat. Shortly after, he appointed a climate-change minister in Britain.
In May, Pugh will attempt a one-kilometer swim through the near-freezing waters of an unnamed lake, at about 18,000 feet at the foot of Everest.
Adventure Icon: Maya Gabeira
The first time I saw a really big wave was at Waimea, at the Eddie Aikau invitational. I was 17 and had just moved to Hawaii from Brazil. I wanted to live on my own. I wanted to figure out who I was and what I really wanted in life. I knew that day that I wanted to surf those waves. After a year of sitting in the lineup with the boys, I caught my first big one—maybe 15 feet—and everything just felt right. I was so focused and in the moment. I loved it. Soon enough I was surfing big waves all over the world. I ended up at Teahupoo, in Tahiti. I was really nervous. I took two big wipeouts, either of which could have ended my career. But it didn't feel right to sit on my board and look stupid, to give up. So my partner, Carlos Burle, towed me out again, and I caught one. People criticized me for taking those risks, for getting in over my head. And, yes, in the beginning I did take a lot of risks, but in the beginning you have to take those risks. How else do you make it? How else do you realize your dreams?
Last August, Gabeira surfed a 45-footer at Dungeons, South Africa, the largest wave ever ridden by a woman—which makes her a shoo-in for her third consecutive Billabong XXL title.
Adventure Icon: Cody Townsend
[26, SANTA CRUZ]
A little over a year ago, Mike Douglas and I came up with the idea to ski on waves. We're both longtime surfers and professional skiers, so the idea came naturally. Very few people knew about the project when we arrived in Maui. We were sure we'd get blasted out of there as kooks if locals heard about some haoles trying to ski on waves, but everyone was supportive. The technology is pretty far behind. It's like skiing on hickory skis 50 years ago. We used alpine ski boots and super-fat wake skis. After one ride, a wave sucked me down and gave me the worst hold-down of my life. I was standing on a reef below the surface. Even with a life jacket on, I couldn't get up. My skis felt like 200-pound weights on each leg. But we also got up to 25-second rides on some big waves with 20-foot faces. It felt like skiing on top of a slow, wet avalanche. It'd be the easiest way ever to get barreled. On a surfboard, you often get spit out, but on skis you can stall out in the tube. By the end of the trip we knew exactly what equipment we'd have to design to make it better.
Townsend is a professional skier, surfer, and watersports innovator.
Adventure Icon: Nikki Kimball
[38, BOZEMAN, MONTANA]
Fun? The race? Fun? Yeah, there were parts of it that were fun. One time, five of us were running along the singletrack and saw this wasp nest, and there was nothing we could do but run through it. (You can't go off-trail, because the jungle's too thick.) These hornets were as long as your little finger—huge. You just heard swearing in five different languages. It was hilarious in a warped kind of way. It's not always painful. I was 27 when I started entering trail races. I'm a slow runner, but I can run for a really long time. It's like hiking at a faster pace. You get to see so much more country, and race organizers are always holding these things in amazing places. It's very social for me. I never took the racing seriously until the press noticed that I had a six-year winning streak. I think each person has a finite number of world-class performances in them.
Starting in 1999, Kimball went seven consecutive years without losing an ultramarathon, including the U.S. national championships. She just returned from winning Brazil's 150-mile Jungle Marathon.
Adventure Icon: Teresa MacPherson and Banks
Teresa MacPhersonTeresa MacPherson and Banks
[57 and 6, FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA]
I went to Port-au-Prince with the second wave of people from our task force with Banks, my 65-pound black Labrador, who is trained to find living people. The rubble went on for miles and miles. Helicopters were continually overhead. Rescue teams were everywhere. We used the dogs to discover people trapped in difficult-to-reach places. Banks crawled into voids, tunneling through an unstable environment where no human could go. He barked when he detected the scent of a living person. It could be seven days before an extrication was complete. The doctors said the victims were probably able to survive because they were used to subsisting on so little. The best canine story in Haiti was about a dog that ran out of its search area and began barking at a wall. They bored a hole in it and stared into the face of a three-year-old, dehydrated but alive. That was a 100 percent dog find. I often wondered if our training would be good enough for a disaster of this magnitude. Would the dogs just go, Are you kidding me? But Banks totally did his job. Our group made 16 rescues, a new record for us. Thankfully, we made a difference.
Virginia Task Force One canine search specialist Teresa MacPherson manages FEMA's disaster dog program. She and her Labs have worked in the aftermaths of the Oklahoma City bombing and hurricanes Ike and Katrina.
This article originally appeared as Parting Shot in Outside's April 2010 issue.
Adventure Icon: Rolando Garibotti
[39, JACKSON HOLE]
Am I media shy? I don't make sponsorship money or apply for grants. I make a living as a guide, and that works well enough. I don't object to media after the fact, but I'm always surprised when people promote a climb before doing it, because it's difficult to deal with the pressure of those expectations. The Torre Traverse [Patagonia's Cerro Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre] took me almost three years. I dedicated all of my time to it. The reason Colin Haley and I pulled it off is because we're very good at planning, not because we're particularly good climbers. We had barely enough food and were barely warm enough. We asked to withdraw the climb from the Piolet d'Or [mountaineering's highest award] in early 2009. That was the second time I'd done that. The first was for a new route on Cerro Torre, in 2005. I just thought the idea that somebody would win this Piolet d'Or was ridiculous. I'm down here with Haley, again. We have an idea, but I don't know if we'll pull it off this year, so I think I'll keep it to myself.
Garibotti has held the record for the Grand Traverse—climbing ten Teton peaks—since 2000, with a time of 6:49.
Adventure Icon: Trip Jennings
[27, PORTLAND, OREGON]
There's no road map that shows you how to make a living as a kayaker and filmmaker, but last December I knew I had done it when I paid my cell-phone bill on time. The idea behind my first film, Bigger Than Rodeo, was to blend environmental activism and cutting-edge whitewater. I drove around the country in a '96 Subaru Impreza and maxed out three credit cards while showing footage of a paddler running a 105-foot waterfall. It took three more films and two more credit cards to figure out a combination of adventure and activism that worked. You don't get an interesting job by filling out an application; you commit to your dream the same way you do a waterfall: pick your line and dive headfirst. I'm glad I did it. In the past two years, my filming expeditions to Papua New Guinea, China, the Congo, Bolivia, Canada, and Brazil have been paid for through a partnership with National Geographic and the International League of Conservation Photographers. In the next six months I'm scheduled to shoot one film about elephant poaching in the Congo and another about kayaking in Laos. I created my dream job. It all started because I spent a year living out of a moldy Subaru and poaching continental breakfasts at cheap motels.
In 2008, Jennings led a team down the rebel-infested lower Congo, the last of the world's great unrun rivers. His films for National Geographic TV use kayaks to access Class V rivers in the service of science.