Breaking All Boundaries

Carl and Lowell Skoog are blazing virgin trails in the backcountry's wild white yonder

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In the oyster light of a Cascade Mountain autumn afternoon, two Technicolor figures zigzag down a slope dotted with second-growth Douglas firs. “Goggles on!” Lowell Skoog yells to his brother Carl, who pulls ’em down just before a maple shoot whips his face. There’s hardly sufficient snow to keep their metal edges from sparking off the rocks, but it’s enough for the Skoog brothers to satisfy an early season backcountry jones. Farther downslope, where the snow melts into rotting leaves and mud, the brothers lash their 180s to their packs and lug the tools of their trade to Lowell’s Subaru wagon, which waits alone by the highway in the gathering darkness.

“Not much competition for those turns,” says Carl, 41, the steep-and-deep junkie who laid first tracks down Mount Rainier’s sheer Mowich Face and who seeks out lines of treacherous descent that send a chill through most mortals.

“Can’t imagine why,” replies Lowell, 43, who ascribes to the “flow state” theory of backcountry travel, preferring long traverses that connect several established tours into a single epic ski marathon.

Whether they’re defining a new “haute route” in the Cascades or simply out satisfying a preseason yearning on scant November snowpack, the Skoogs are in a class by themselves when it comes to expanding the known universe of backcountry skiing. “They’re amazing at finding things that haven’t been done,” says Andrew McLean, the steep-skiing maestro of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. “They’ll come up with something and you’ll just say ‘Wow! How’d you know about that?'”

Increasingly, however, the Skoogs are discovering that they are no longer alone out there. “Backcountry” has become one of the hottest buzzwords in the alpine industry, and terrain that was once the domain of powder-porn studs and wealthy heli-skiers has come within reach of the weekend black-diamond dog. The small but growing backcountry ski market, previously dominated by niche companies like Tua and Karhu, has recently attracted major players like K2 and Völkl, while innovations like Black Diamond’s Avalung, a vest that enables avalanche victims to breathe under the snow, has ostensibly made the territory more accessible and safer. In southern British Columbia, which boasts some of the continent’s prime off-piste turf, backcountry shelters are so popular they are now available only through lottery. Even resorts are scrambling to provide high-adventure allure by opening previously off-limits areas; in the last two years, Jackson Hole, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Jay Peak have all added backcountry acreage. “This is something we’ve waited 20 years for,” says Lou Dawson, 48, an off-piste pioneer from Carbondale, Colorado, and author of the backcountry guide Wild Snow. “There’s terrain around Snowmass that would blow you away, but nobody knows about it because it’s never been open.”

Old-schoolers like the Skoogs will tell you, though, that “backcountry area” doesn’t necessarily mean backcountry skiing. Their idea of what Dawson calls “whole mountain skiing” only begins with ungroomed, unpatrolled, unpaid-for terrain, and includes everything from weeklong ridgeline traverses to laying lines down steep, icy chutes. The aim, says Lowell, is not to huff up the hill for three hours in order to enjoy a ten-minute run to the parking lot. According to the Skoogian weltanschauung, the ethos of backcountry is closer to classic mountaineering than to resort alpinism: You are alone with your route-finding chops, your survival savvy, and the knowledge that the ski patrol won’t save your freezing ass on its 4:30 sweep. You may find some fine powder, but the greater rewards will likely arrive a few miles in, when you crest a ridge and glide into the vast white hush.

For such a tiny segment of the alpine population, backcountry skiers’ ranks include a startling array of factions. The Skoogs are loyal to the randonnée clique, which is distinguished by its lightweight equipment and bindings that allow for free-heel climbing and fixed-heel descents. This equipment (see story at right) provides surgical control in spots where falling is not only unacceptable, but potentially lethal. In comparison, free-heeling telemarkers, with their flex-toed boots and thigh-torching turns, trade in a modicum of control for less weight and more comfort. Then there are the backcountry snowboarders, who snowshoe uphill. And within these different groups of gear devotees is a further schism between two opposing schools: the steep junkies who, says Dawson, “just get better and better at jumping off cliffs,” and the long-haul alpine tourists. This division is most clearly embodied by the Skoogs themselves.

Carl, a mountain photographer, craves sharp faces like the Wasatch’s 55-degree Pfiefferhorn. After he, McLean, Armond DuBuque, and Doug Ingersoll scaled the Mowich Face in July of 1997 using crampons and ice axes, they had to wait three hours for the sun to soften the snow before attempting the treacherous descent. “We joked about needing exploding helmets,” Carl recalls, “because if you fell, a normal helmet wouldn’t do much good; you wanted one that blew up at terminal velocity to save you the trouble of impact.”

Lowell, on the other hand, may be the country’s foremost long-and-far thinker, creating punishing single-day sojourns across some of the continent’s most rugged terrain. Adapting psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, a state of optimal experience, Lowell invented his own “flow day” by linking separate routes into a single marathon. The Skoogs’ first flow day became a legend: Twelve years ago they compressed the Ptarmigan Traverse, a classic multiday summer mountaineering route in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, into a single 21-hour randonnée siege. “On a whirlwind traverse like that,” says Carl, “the mountains don’t get smaller, they get more connected. You feel how the range flows together and get this sense of a whole that’s missing when you do multiple camps.”

The Skoog brothers may one day agree on which is better, steep or far—a debate that may already have glimpsed its resolution on a mountain far from the trailhead. “There’s a spot we found in the North Cascades National Park back in 1982—it doesn’t even have a name,” says Lowell. “We started calling it Dream Peak. It’s completely dominated by other peaks, but it’s a perfect ski run: It gets gradually steeper and steeper as it tapers toward the top, where you get tremendous views of the ragged ridge all around you. On the third day of the traverse we found it, and just dropped our packs and did these smooth turns. As far as we know, it’s been skied only three times. And it’s been us every time.”

Public Property: Keep Out!

Clinton tries to create a conservation legacy by guarding wilderness from miners, loggers—and Congress

It was about as effusive as the New York Times can get over a lame duck president. Last fall, under headlines such as “A Forest Legacy” and “Monuments for Posterity,” a series of editorials lauded Bill Clinton for his “bold” and “breathtaking” late-term action on environmental issues. Specifically, the editorials referred to two executive orders that the president either has invoked or intends to invoke, and which, taken together, may qualify as the biggest conservation coup since Teddy Roosevelt created 200 million acres of public land between 1905 and 1909. “For someone who paid no attention to environmental issues during his first year in office,” the Times wrote, “Clinton may wind up with an impressive legacy as a preservationist.”

High praise, to be sure—but no less exceptional than what Clinton is attempting to do with his executive orders. Last October, he invoked the National Forest Management Act—an obscure provision created in 1976 that enables the president to issue directives to the U.S. Forest Service—to prohibit any new roads from being built in parts of the national forest that are presently roadless. By making commercial development in these lands virtually impossible, the scheme—which must undergo a gamut of public hearings that will last until the end of this year—could create a 50 million acre patchwork of protected forest, an area the size of Virginia and West Virginia combined.

It was also last autumn that Clinton explored the idea of using the Antiquities Act of 1906—which allows a president to protect public lands from development by designating them national monuments—to create as many as a dozen new monument sites in the West. Since then, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been barnstorming all over the West visiting proposed areas and soliciting public comment. The candidates could include sites from the Otay Mountains in southern California to the majestic South Quinault Ridge in Washington.

Both plans, of course, must still survive the test of presidential politics, yet pundits are already identifying Clinton’s land campaign as one of his most significant legislative achievements. And in at least one respect, they’re correct: Regardless of whether these initiatives succeed or fail, credit lies exclusively with the White House, which has fashioned an unorthodox strategy for thwarting Congress. Through his executive acts, the president hopes to circumvent a Congress that is deliberately uncooperative on environmental issues. By so doing, however, Clinton has antagonized powerful Republican politicians who are allied with timber and mining bigwigs, and who now accuse the president of undermining the very foundations of democracy.

The hyperbole has been impressive. In October, several western Republicans characterized the president’s “Great Western Land Grab” as an unseemly bid to satisfy his libidinous need for an environmental legacy. Soon thereafter, Representative Jim Hansen, a Republican from Utah, opined that “Democracy isn’t always pretty, but I think we can all agree it is a lot better than having a king dictate everything from the White House.” By December, presidential hopeful Senator John McCain had entered the fray, blasting Clinton’s executive action as “the epitome of federal arrogance.”

Although the Republicans may be serving Mammon more than John Q. Public, curiously, they do have a point. In order to bypass Congress, Clinton has resorted to a scheme with an unsettling similarity to the semantic contortions of the Lewinsky affair (To wit: It depends on what your definition of “environment” is). The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, requires the president to secure congressional approval before designating any piece of federal land as wilderness, a label that grants it the highest level of protection. So Clinton has proposed the creation of a new designation with only slightly less regulatory heft—near-wilderness—which would not require Congress’s blessing. It must also be acknowledged that the administration’s record with environmental executive action is hardly a model of soliciting public input. In September 1996, Clinton invoked the Antiquities Act to create the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, enraging many locals and politicians who felt—with some justification—that they were not adequately consulted.

Admitting that Clinton’s foes have a point, however, isn’t the same thing as saying that they’re right. In fact, the Republicans’ expressions of outraged shock and indignation are not only disingenuous, but profoundly hypocritical. The main reason the president has resorted to unilateral action is that Congress has repeatedly refused to consider similar legislation itself, and has sabotaged several of his previous efforts at conservation —despite numerous polls indicating that Americans overwhelmingly favor environmental protection. Moreover, GOP umbrage loses much of its moral force, considering the efforts of congressional representatives to weaken environmental law through back-door tactics such as anti-environmental riders, last-minute amendments to bills. In recent riders, Republican senators have taken steps to permit more logging in national forests, proposed allowing mining companies to dump thousands of tons of waste on federal land, and tried to block the government from collecting millions of dollars in fines from power companies that violate clean-air laws.

Ultimately, what is perhaps most ironic about this skirmish is that it comes at a time when populist muscle has actually been most successful in effecting environmental policy. In the ’98 elections, some 170 preservationist ballot initiatives were passed across the country. And at the nearly 180 local public hearings already held by the Forest Service to discuss the roadless initiative, there has been enormous public support. Republicans may be lamenting the alleged subversion of the democratic process, but the people are shouting to be heard. It’s just that they’re often drowned out by the din of partisan yelping.

Babar Gets a Beret

A group of unemployed elephants makes a splash in the art world

In an elegant Manhattan apartment, champagne flows and sitar music fills the air  while the artist Andres Serrano, creator of Piss Christ, schmoozes with the party’s host, a noted collector of Renaissance art. Most of the attention at this soirée, however, is focused on three abstract paintings: a work in gunmetal blue that evokes the charged energy of lightning, a smaller canvas whose bold strokes suggest a horse leaping from negative space, and a dark composition called Forest, which features angry green bands and is signed by an artist named Bird.

What’s so attractive about Bird and his colleagues? Well, they’re Asian elephants, and the flurry of interest their work has aroused is deliciously apt, considering that all of New York was recently abuzz over an attempt by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to force the Brooklyn Museum to remove a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. Plus, connoisseurs will soon be to able purchase originals for themselves. On March 21, a consignment of pachyderm paintings will be auctioned at Christie’s to raise funds for the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, a group founded in 1998 by Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar, Russian-born conceptual artists who have satirized everything from Soviet Realism to Western kitsch. Although they are notorious pranksters who delight in subverting art’s many pretensions, Melamid and Komar have loved elephants since they were children. Thus their decision to spearhead the project, which is designed to assist the 3,500 Asian elephants and their mahouts, or owners, who were left without work after logging was radically curtailed in Thailand in 1990.

Melamid and Komar have established Elephant Art Schools in Kerala, southern India; Bali, Indonesia; and Lampang and Ayutthaya, Thailand, where pachyderms spend their afternoons pondering the blank surface and then splattering it—and anything else within 20 yards—with paint. The Jackson Pollockesque results earned more than $50,000 at their first showing in Bangkok. And if all goes well, the Christie’s auction could net another $250,000 to lavish on conservation efforts—a prospect that both gratifies Melamid and Komar, and confirms their views on the enterprise of art. “I know plenty of unemployed humans who are masters of nothing and have turned to art,” says Melamid. “Elephants aren’t as smart as humans. But I’m not sure you have to be smart to paint.” 

Bounty of the Deep

A waterlogged look at the world’s wealthiest shipwrecks

Recovering lost shipwrecks has proven quite lucrative. Last May, gold coins salvaged from the California steamer Brother Jonathan were auctioned off by Bowers and Merena Inc. for $5.5 million. And over the last ten years, the paddlewheeler S.S. Central America, which sank in 1857 off the U.S.’s Atlantic coast, may have netted its finders more than $100 million. Now, however, the pressure is mounting on divers searching for new wrecks. Next month in Paris, a UNESCO delegation, responding to the long-standing battle between underwater archaeologists and sunken-treasure hunters, could ratify an international convention that will declare shipwrecks more than 50 years old off limits to commercial salvors and sport divers. Herewith, the short list of the unplucked plums.


Off the coasts of Haiti, Panama, and Jamaica



Columbus lost four ships to hurricanes, four others to shipworm damage, and one to grounding on his four voyages to the New World. Most are believed to be buried in sediment and sand in very shallow water.

Unique historical and archaeological value.


Currently, no one. Interest faded following the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage.






The 450-ton Concepción was the flagship of a fleet carrying gold, silver, and other New World treasures back to Spain when it was lost in a storm.

Some 25 tons of gold and silver, plus precious stones valued at $100 million.


Minneapolis-based Treasure Ventures Inc., a newly formed group of investors and entrepreneurs.


Florida Keys


Six ships were lost in a hurricane after leaving Havana. To date, three of the six, including the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, have been found. The Atocha alone has yielded some 47 tons of gold, silver, and emeralds valued at $400 million.

Depends on the ship; at least one may contain $200 million in treasure.

The company formed by late king o’ slick salvagers Mel Fisher.


Off the coast of Cartageña, Colombia



The richest Spanish ship lost in the Western Hemisphere, the San José exploded during a battle with English warships. Only five of her 600-member crew survived.

Thought to contain 11 million gold pesos and two tons of platinum. (Present value: $1 billion.)


Numerous companies have negotiated unsuccessfully with the Colombian government for the rights to search for and salvage the wreck.



Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington state


Republic was carrying California gold miners to San Francisco when it collided with another ship. Only two of the estimated 275 passengers survived.


Bullion worth at least $30 million.

Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration.

The Butterfly Has Landed

But her high-octane campaign to save old-growth forests continues to soar

On December 18, Julia “Butterfly” Hill attempted a final climb to the top of the 200-foot redwood called Luna in which she had lived for 738 days, but burst into tears before reaching her goal. Minutes later, she rappelled to the ground and was embraced by friends. “I ran, I danced, I played,” says Hill, who hadn’t touched terra firma since she began her protest against the Pacific Lumber Company’s plans to convert the 1,000-year-old forest giant into $150,000 worth of patio furniture. “It was like being on the moon for two years.”

Her descent capped off the longest tree-sitting protest in American environmental history, which concluded after Pacific Lumber pledged to protect the tree and a surrounding 200-foot buffer zone, while Hill and her supporters agreed to pay Pacific Lumber $50,000 in fines (PLC will donate the money to a local university). A former barmaid and the daughter of an itinerant preacher from Arkansas, Hill, 25, weathered a number of ordeals during her first year as loggers disrupted her sleep with air horns and 80-mile-per-hour El Niño winds battered her perch. But by last Thanksgiving, when we paid her a quick visit, she had virtually merged with the tree. Her toes were curled in an almost simian manner; her feet were coated with sap, which she said helped her stick to the branches; and she claimed to have established a rapport of sorts with Luna, divining the tree’s moods and professing to find solace in its arboreal vibrations.

Written off by some as a pantheistic eco-nut, Hill demonstrated an impressive savoir faire for waging an effective media campaign. She kept a digital camera and a pager with her in the tree and used a solar-powered cell phone to conduct interviews and lobby politicians such as Senator Diane Feinstein. Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, and Woody Harrelson stopped by to visit. And last year, in addition to being featured in Time, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone, she was voted one of the “20 Most Fascinating Women in Politics” by George.

Having surrendered her perch, Hill is now forbidden to wander freely on Pacifc Lumber’s land—an injunction that she says leaves her somewhat nonplussed because, in the flurry of her departure, “I didn’t have a chance to be with Luna and to say good-bye.” But upcoming events should leave her little time to grieve. Her book, The Legacy of Luna, will be published next month by Harper San Francisco. And in the meantime, Hill says she wants to promote compromises between environmentalists and businesses similar to the one that preserved Luna. “A corporation and an activist are on opposite ends: They’re driven by a love of money, and I’m driven by a love of life,” she says. “So the fact that we came to an agreement is magical.” And perhaps it is.


Power Stroke
“Add up every phone bill from my entire life and it won’t equal November’s,” says 36-year-old Tori Murden, referring to the tally of $3-per-minute emergency satellite calls she made in efforts to outsmart Hurricane Lenny during her successful bid last December to become the first woman to row solo and unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean. Despite her $6,000 debt to AT&T, the six-foot-tall Kentuckian and former lawyer is ecstatic over her 81-day, seven-hour-and-46-minute crossing of the south Atlantic from Los Gigantes, Tenerife, to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Having scooped the record, Murden insists she has no immediate plans to jump back into the morgue-drawer-size cockpit of American Pearl, her homemade 23-foot, Kevlar-reinforced plywood boat. But she readily admits that the allure of long-distance ocean rowing may eventually pull her back. “It’s like eating a great big meal,” says Murden. “You swear you’re never going to do it again, and then pretty soon you start getting hungry.” —STEPHANIE GREGORY