The Best Stories We’ve Ever Told
According to the people who are most obsessed with the Outside archive: Outside staffers
Over the past 40-plus years, Outside has published a lot of stories that resonated with readers. But we wanted to know which ones resonated most with the editors who worked on all those magazine issues? So we asked staffers to name their all-time favorite Outside story and ended up with an emotional journey through some truly great, and often underappreciated, work across subjects and eras.
“John and Ann Bender’s Quest for Paradise”
The first time I read this, I had just started at Outside and became so obsessed with what happened to Ann and John that I went home and Googled them for a night straight—if you go deep enough into the internet, you can even find a video tour of their home in the jungle. The story itself is tragic, weird, and compelling, but at its heart, it’s the vivid details that really stick with you. I’ll never get the image of 500 Tiffany lamps out of my mind.
—Abigail Wise, online managing editor
Published in 2014, “Unprotected” was a groundbreaking look at the history of sexual abuse and cover-up in the world of American competitive swimming. To report this story, Rachel Sturtz spent months searching for victims of sexual abuse by coaches in the ranks of amateur swimming in the United States. She also spoke with lawyers, law enforcement officials, independent watchdogs, and others who helped her understand the complicated system of crime cover-up that has turned many of our amateur sports federations into breeding grounds for the exploitation of young women. The patterns Sturtz explored in this story have become familiar in recent months, thanks largely to the scandal that exploded in U.S. Gymnastics, involving serial abuser Larry Nassar.
—Alex Heard, editorial director
Outside editors love Everest. Every spring, as the climbing season begins, our office buzzes with excitement and our homepage is plastered with dispatches about the teams heading up the mountain. “Dead Weight,” published more than a decade ago, is one of my favorites. In many ways, this story—in which Eric Hansen spends five days as a porter in Nepal—follows the classic theme of the confident white westerner testing his physical limits by performing manual labor in another country, only to return home run-down and demoralized. But Hansen writes in a humorous, awe-inspired way that gives the reader a real insight into the lives of Sherpas and a true appreciation for the work they do. If you want a detailed account of the life of a Sherpa during Everest season, this is a good place to start.
—Ben Fox, associate reviews editor
Long before I lived on an island and was surrounded by the Mediterranean, I fell in love with Jonathan Raban’s musings of solitary life on his boat in “At Sea.” His descriptions were romantic, and the scenes he set—of pulling out of unknown ports and leaving behind “a small gap, like a missing tooth…[ahead] the open sea and a day like a blank slate”—tugged at my own travel strings at the time, a recent college graduate eager to explore and get lost to find myself.
—Tasha Zemke, copy editor
“The Day We Set the Colorado River Free”
Not only is this a classic Outside adventure story—with a bunch of river rats trying to make a historic descent of the Colorado River—but it’s also a creative way to talk about one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the West right now: increasing drought and water scarcity. Rowan Jacobsen tackles that massive, scary topic in this fun-to-read, super-informative feature.
—Axie Navas, executive editor
“Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead”
I think this is the article that first made me think I might want to work at Outside someday, or at least be a magazine writer. The story is thrilling and a bit shocking—but not so much that it doesn’t respect its subject matter: the world’s best freedivers. My first time reading it, I had never heard of freediving, but by the end of the narrative, I felt like an expert on the sport. Maybe that’s what I loved most about the piece: discovering something new, and discovering it so fully. But I’m always just as enthralled when I reread it.
—Svati Kirsten Narula, assistant social media editor
“A Recklessly Picaresque, Highly Philosophical, Gloriously Unmapped Road Trip in Search of Secret Places You’ll Have to Find Yourself”
While I have many, many favorite Outside stories, one that deserves some extra love is a story by Bryan Di Salvatore about his quest to track down the mystery behind why people throw shoes into trees. He drove all over the West to find the trees and came back with one of the most unique romps I’ve ever read. Bryan and I had a heated discussion about why he didn’t want to say where the trees actually are; he won that debate. Though the story ran in 2001, it still delights today.
—Mary Turner, deputy editor
“He toodles off, leaving me to fend for myself in a craft that probably wouldn’t survive an attack by a determined koi.” That’s how Wells Tower opens his odyssey to navigate the alligator-infested waters of Florida on an inner tube. It’s a hilarious story and so well-written.
—J. Weston Phippen, senior editor
“57 Feet & Rising”
In 2011, when the Mississippi was swollen and angry with flood waters, Outside sent W. Hodding Carter 300 miles down the river in a canoe, and I haven’t gotten the story out of my mind since. It’s the type of story I love best: a slightly daring writer goes on a slightly harebrained expedition to help readers better understand a broader issue that’s affecting the world we care about.
—Jonah Ogles, articles editor
“An Inside Look at the Surprisingly Violent Quidditch World Cup”
Did you know Outside was one of the first national magazines (along with our nemesis, ESPN) to have a website? Despite this, I didn’t manage to read a story on OutsideOnline.com until 2012, when I somehow discovered Eric Hansen’s relentlessly hilarious story about competitive Quidditch. I haven’t forgotten it even now that I work for said website. Hansen describes the ass-kicking of him and his ragtag team of alternative-sports specialists with the rigor of any serious sports reporter. He catches every poignant detail, even while scrambling after a human snitch while straddling a broom: “‘Icelander! Get on your broom,’ the announcer barked. ‘It’s why we play. To fly.’”
—Erin Berger, senior editor
“The King of the Ferret Leggers”
Outside has published some pretty epic stories—Everest summits, jungle expeditions, explorers stranded at sea—but the one story that I just can’t shake is Donald Katz’s 1983 feature on the English sport of ferret legging. What is ferret legging, you ask? It’s quite simple: Pants are tied at the ankles, a ferret dropped in, and the contestant endures for as long as they can. The record at the time was 5 hours and 26 minutes, held by the tattooed and lovable 72-year-old Reg Mellor. Katz dives deep into the bizarre world of this little-known pastime, and I can assure you, this is a read you do not want to miss.
—Marie Sullivan, associate video producer
“Humble Is the Prey”
David Quammen is a hero of mine from my early days in college. I had never read anyone who could so eloquently distill exoteric scientific theories and the nearly impenetrable technical jargon into such beautiful (and perhaps more important, easy to understand) prose. He was a prolific writer for Outside, but there’s a reason we’ve included this piece about the Komodo dragon in our recent anthology Out There: It’s one of his best. (Ed. note: It’s also not published online, so you’ll have to find it in the book.)
—Nicholas Hunt, associate editor
“Run for Your Life”
Running and obsessiveness often go hand in hand, and I’ve read countless essays about the compulsion to run. But this one has always stuck with me. I first read it before I worked at Outside, and I’ve come back to it more times than I care to admit. (When I searched for it in my inbox just now, I found several emails I’ve sent to different people recommending they read it. To an ex-boyfriend: “Maybe this offers some insight into my psyche.” I’ll stop there.) Every time I revisit the story, different parts resonate, as my relationship with running has changed over time. The essay is dark in spots, and I don’t relate to all of it, but other parts are frustratingly familiar. Without fail, this bit always pops out at me: “Running is hard, I think we can all agree. And there’s nothing quite so easy as not running. What it takes to run, on the other hand, is at the threshold of the obscene. But once you accumulate a good number of miles, running farther and faster becomes more urgent than running less, never mind stopping.”
—Molly Mirhashem, associate editor
“Blood in the Sand”
This classic by the late and legendary Matthew Power is true crime meets incredible environmental story, all set on a jungle beach in Costa Rica. In 2013, 26-year-old conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was murdered while trying to protect leatherback sea turtle nests on Costa Rica’s east coast from egg poachers. Power travels there to follow the homicide investigation and the efforts of Mora’s friends to honor his legacy by continuing to protect the endangered species’ eggs.
—Luke Whelan, research editor
“From Kidnapping to Kids, My Life On and Off the Rock”
This piece by Beth Rodden has to be my all-time favorite story. Nestled into the all-women “XX Factor” print issue, this hard-hitting story shows what it means to be a professional rock climber and to balance life and passion. Personally, this story cemented my burning desire to work for Outside and publish incredible stories like Beth’s.
—Emily Reed, assistant reviews editor
“The Polar Expedition That Went Berserk”
In 2011, a crew of five embarked on an expedition from Norway to Antarctica. Only two made it back alive, and the whole story teeters on the verge of being so ridiculous that you almost don’t believe it really happened.
—Ariella Gintzler, assistant editor
“The Boy Who Lived on Edges”
This is a story about skiing, mental illness, and a gifted man who maybe died on purpose, or maybe not. It’s dark and visceral, and it might just be contributing editor Christopher Solomon’s magnum opus.
—Jenny Earnest, social media manager