Extreme Skiing

This year's World Extreme Skiing Championships will feature two types of descent: Hail Mary and Mother of God

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Hello, Father? Do You Offer Last Rites by Cell Phone?


When nearly 40 skiers converge outside Valdez, Alaska, on the sixth of next month for the ninth annual World Extreme Skiing Championships, they stand to log a series of performances that could collectively constitute one of their sport’s watershed moments. Armed with fat and shaped skis custom-built to handle the Chugach Mountains’ temperamental maritime snowpack, 50-degree steeps, and coffin-width chutes, these racers will blitz lines that would have been deemed suicidal by the slow-motion, hop-turning Chamonix mountaineers who invented ski d’extreme back in the late 70s. “This is a turning-point year,” says Shane McConkey, who finished sixth in 1996. “The creativity you see now is crazy, and the talent level has gone through the roof.”

That may sound like overbilling, especially in light of McConkey’s current job title: President of the International Free Skiing Association. But there are grounds for taking his assurances seriously. In the first place, there’s the unprecedented influx of world-class freestylers and alpine racers, more than 1,000 of whom have scrambled to sign on with the IFSA since 1996. And then there’s the stature of the WESC itself. Though still notorious for its low-rent digs and paltry prize packages (this year’s contestants will risk their lives for $3,000), the WESC seems to be emerging as one of the most significant championships in skiing, having just inked TV deals with the Eurosport Channel and ESPN2 at a time when the U.S. Pro Skiing Tour was forced to cancel its entire 1999 schedule due to lack of viewer interest.

The primary reason the WESC is able to flourish in the face of such apathy is that it consistently produces the sorts of spectacles rarely witnessed on the traditional gates-and-stopwatches circuit. These can range from the appalling to the absurd. In 1993, Wilbur Madsen fell to his death while peering over his intended line of descent, and three years later Brigitte Mead rag-dolled for 1,000 feet before bashing to a stop at the base of a rock wall. (She survived, thanks only to her battered helmet.) Last year, however, Frenchman Sebastian Michaud pulled off a feat worthy of a plane-crash survivor when he lost a ski just after throwing a backflip off a 50-foot cliff, made the split-second decision to speed away on one leg, rammed through another crux, lost his second ski, and ended up jogging across the finish line.

If conditions this year enable them to stick their intended lines, the course could favor McConkey and 1995 winner Dean Cummings in the men’s division and Jill Sickels Matlock and Switzerland’s Francine Moreillon in the women’s, all of whom ski with a style that embraces aggression and speed. But regardless of who gets to cash the winners’ checks, the competition should be worth watching. “This is another league,” says Cummings. “Rookies don’t understand that when you unhook from these mountains, you’re only going to touch down every 60 feet.”



Take Yosemite, Then Multiply By 20

With U.S. help, China sets up one of the world’s largest national parks


Ever since he traded his Marine combat boots for a pair of penny loafers and stepped from the mud of Vietnam to the cloisters of Harvard Law School, Ed Norton has been something of a specialist in tempering ironclad idealism with diplomatic savoir faire. Insiders like to recall how Norton, as head of the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff in 1987, clipped the wings of the air-tourism business while simultaneously charming Republican politicos into attempting to push no-fly-zone legislation through Congress. Now 56 and a senior adviser to The Nature Conservancy, the silver-haired Norton is about to begin what could be the biggest challenge of his life: acting as a point man in an audacious effort to build one of the world’s largest networks of national parks in the most populous country on Earth.

When it is finally up and running sometime after 2005, Yunnan Great Rivers National Park will embrace three major waterways as they cascade from Tibetan glaciers to lowland forests, a vast wilderness wedged deep in China’s remote Yunnan Province that is of inestimable value to conservationists. The 25,819-square-mile swatch, which dwarfs Yosemite by a factor of 20, hosts half of all plants used in traditional Chinese medicine and numerous pockets of endangered predators such as the snow leopard. “It’s like you took all the wondrous diversity of California,” says an American ecologist working in the area, “and squeezed it in a vise.”

While a venture like this would be noteworthy anywhere, the fact that it is taking place in China, a nation tearing through one of the fastest industrialization phases in human history, is downright revolutionary. But after more than 3,000 people perished in last summer’s massive Yangtze floods, Chinese leaders experienced an epiphany regarding the link between natural disaster and irresponsible ecosystem management. Thus their willingness to embark on a partnership with The Nature Conservancy that is being closely watched by environmentalists around the world.

This spring, the first order of business for Norton and his Chinese counterparts will be to select the most critical regions to be preserved, even though some have barely been studied. They must also forge alliances with hostile timber-industry interests, paper-pushing magistrates, and tetchy representatives from 25 ethnic minorities ù all while adroitly tiptoeing through the political minefields of China’s inscrutable and ossified bureaucracy.

Norton, who moves to Kunming next month, pronounces himself “excited to be a part of it.” Others, however, are waiting to see how the project will fare in a society that has virtually no experience with environmentalism. “I have to take this with a grain of salt,” admits Doris Shen, a scientist with the International Rivers Network, noting the remark a Chinese official once shared with a colleague of hers: “Conservation is what you talk about only after you’ve had your meal.”



No Death, No Car Chases, and the Star Doesn’t Fall in Love

A new movie about Ethiopian distance legend Haile Gebrselassie breaks the tired form



When Olympic distance runner Haile Gebrselassie returned to Ethiopia from the Atlanta Games in 1996 clutching his gold medal from the 10,000 meters, more than a million of his countrymen lined the streets of Addis Ababa. When British film director Leslie Woodhead set out to begin shooting his upcoming documentary of Gebrselassie’s life later that same year, he confronted similar evidence of the runner’s phenomenal popularity. To prevent crowds from besieging their national hero, Woodhead was forced to keep the 25-year-old star concealed in the back of a blacked-out van until they were ready to film, at which point he would emerge, shoot the scene, and then duck back into the vehicle. “It was very difficult,” says Woodhead, recalling the only comparable experience in his 35-year career. “It was like filming Paul McCartney in London in 1965.”

The result of Woodhead’s resourcefulness is an 83-minute documentary, produced by Disney and titled Endurance, which opens next month in 11 American cities. For years, aficionados have mourned the lack of believable and inspiring running films. (Pre, the 1997 story of American distance legend Steve Prefontaine, was typical for its lack of depth and its use of actors who represent running’s ethos with the zest and ‰lan of department-store mannequins.) Endurance may be welcomed as a refreshing break in this trend.

Featuring members of his immediate family, the film offers a vivid account of Gebrselassie’s rise from son of an impoverished Ethiopian farmer to world record-holder in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter, and two-mile runs — and a man now considered by many to be the greatest distance runner of all time.

As the documentary wends through theaters, its star plans to focus on the world indoor championships in Japan at the end of this month. “I will try to break the records for the 3,000 and 5,000,” says Gebrselassie, with businesslike alacrity. “That will be my target for 1999.”




Well, Women Think I’m Kinda Weird

And if you lived in a hole for 10 years, they’d probably say the same of you

When authorities on Massachusetts’s Nantucket Island recently discovered that Thomas Johnson had spent the last decade secretly living in a 158-square-foot bunker beneath some of the priciest real estate on the eastern seaboard, they were astonished at his amenities: Belgian stone floors, cedar paneling, skylights, a queen-size bed. Intrigued, we caught up with the 38-year-old recluse, who’s staying with a friend while he appeals his eviction notices.

So … you’re a hermit?

I don’t fit the bill of an underground kook. And I’m not prejudiced against anybody. I hate everyone equally.

You were eight feet underground. Was it, you know, kinda dirty down there?

When people think underground, they think dirt. My place is not dirty at all. I’m a cleanness freak. People are envious.

What about the winters?

It never got colder than 52 degrees. The stove would eventually heat up the stone floor. The stonework was beautiful. It looked like I had a team of Aztecs come in there and lay it.

Must have been pretty lonely.

Every day I got to talk to the animals. Red squirrels. Chipmunks. Owls. They liked to listen to me talk.

Any critters you’re not so fond of?

Rats. One time one dug in through the back vent into an empty space behind the wall. God almighty, did that infuriate me! I drilled holes and shot the space full of foam. I hope I nailed the son of a bitch with foam.

Did you ever think, gee, it sure would be nice to order a pizza?

Hell, no.

So what happens next?

I’ve got a cliff dwelling in the Catskills and a bunker near a waterfall in Pennsylvania. I’m like a beaver. I can carve a place into the woods, and you’d never know it was there.

Like the Ewoks, but More Pungent

In Oregon, a group of radicals communes with the Arboreal Oneness


Deep in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, surrounded by clearcuts, lie several scattered patches of ancient hemlocks and majestic Douglas firs. Because these areas contain some of the Willamette’s (and by extension, the nation’s) last stands of 200-foot old-growth trees, news that the U.S. Forest Service had auctioned them off to the Zip-O-Log Company last March incensed many environmentalists ù among them a group of Earth First! activists who convened in a Eugene coffeehouse shortly after the deal was announced to form an ad hoc brigade called Red Cloud Thunder, in honor of the last war chief of the Teton Sioux. At its inaugural meeting, the 150-member group resolved to take turns occupying a number of trees slated for the saw in the hopes of forestalling Zip-O’s plan to convert these forest giants into patio furniture.

This, of course, is merely the latest expression of a decade-long tree-sitting trend whose most recent form is perhaps best articulated by Julia “Butterfly” Hill. For the past 14 months, the 24-year-old former barmaid and model has conducted a running media-fest from the upper branches of a tree she’s named Luna to protest the destruction of one of northern California’s last remaining redwood stands. When Butterfly isn’t chatting up reporters on her cell phone, she’s updating her Web page, schmoozing with her PR agent, or mourning the death of David “Gypsy” Chain, a fellow protester whose demise beneath a logger-felled redwood last September cast the national spotlight on an even larger stand of endangered redwoods six miles to the south.

Curious about how Red Cloud Thunder’s spec ops were proceeding amid these larger developments, we decided it was time to pay a visit to their compound, a kind of dendriform paradise-without-plumbing that seems to have taken its blueprint from the Ewoks, the arboreal rodents of Return of the Jedi fame. For living quarters, they have rigged up five aeries inspired by architectural styles that range from Backwoods Henhouse to Mississippi River Raft. Each is connected to the others by a cat’s cradle of climbing ropes, winches, and pulleys.

We swiftly discover that the RCTers have anointed each of their trees with a name. Yggdrasl, the “party tree,” is inhabited by a protester with the admirably unpretentious nom de guerre Dirt, who describes himself as a “freelance forest defender.” Fangorn contains the group’s library, which includes works by Einstein, Thoreau, and Emerson, plus a variety of field guides. (The books are circulated via pulleys from one tree to the next.) There’s also Comfrey, Guardian, Friendly, Grandma, and a tree called Happy, which we ascended by means of a rope to speak with Nettle, a 22-year-old anarchist hailing from Augusta, Georgia.

Nettle currently resides on a round plywood platform with a sleeping bag, a two-burner camp stove, and a car battery that powers her string of Christmas lights and a tape deck on which she listens to the cutting-edge punk-folk chanteuse Ani DiFranco while contemplating Happy’s bark. “There’s a natural mark the shape of a goddess in it,” she says. “See?”

We did see, though not as clearly as Nettle. But then, she’s been up here for eight months, sipping herbal tea, keeping house, and paying visits to the abodes of her comrades. (“Comfrey’s like a hammock,” she says. “I go over there and I have the most amazing dreams!”) Nettle also enjoys trading bits of woodsy banter with her neighbor in nearby Fangorn, a 35-year-old activist who calls himself Pacific, wears camouflage pants, paints his face green, and used to play the stock market. “The trees,” Pacific volunteers, “they talk to us. They warn us, you know. Happy will say, ‘The Freddies [the Forest Service rangers] are coming on Tuesday.’ I’ve gotten used to accurate tree reports.”

Nettle smiles. “I love Pacific,” she croons with all the warmth of her home state. “Idn’t he great?”

Alas, the Freddies don’t think so ù an opinion that stems, among other things, from the RCTers’ habit of dropping gallon jugs filled with urine onto the heads of Forest Service personnel. “These people are downright obnoxious,” says agency spokesperson Patti Rodgers, expressing a sentiment that is echoed, none too surprisingly, by a growing number of mainstream environmentalists.

Though their more moderate colleagues find the RCTers’ dedication admirable and their loopiness mildly endearing, they clearly worry that Nettle and her friends are helping to sustain the impression that environmental activists are all a bunch of … well, nitwits. “You don’t build support,” grumbles Mitch Friedman, director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, “by constructing a counterculture up in the trees.”

On that point, Nettle and her colleagues beg to differ, vehemently offering up a rebuttal that must, in fairness, be given some credence ù if only because Zip-O has yet to fire up its chainsaws in this section of the Willamette. “Hey, our sit is the highest tree village ever!” exclaims Dirt. “And as long as we’re in the trees, they can’t cut ’em down.”



Ghosts in the Machine



Ever since profiling Austrian powerhouse Hermann Maier (“Thinking About Machine-Man,” November), we’ve watched with interest as, in the process of tearing through the World Cup ski season (winning five races to date), the Hermanator has proved that he can wreak havoc on more than just the slopes. To celebrate his victory in the Super G at Aspen last December, he overturned furniture at a late-night soiree, then commandeered a 1986 Acura Integra for the sole purpose of cutting doughnuts (the car was later deemed undrivable). Just after sunup, two law-enforcement officers responding to complaints that “juveniles” were firing up a backhoe happened upon Maier, who was furiously pedaling for the airport on a “borrowed” bicycle, toting teammate Andreas Schifferer. The bike was abandoned and a brief chase ensued ù with an embarrassing denouement. “The Hermanator slipped on some ice,” scoffs Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy Ron Ryan, who removed the handcuffs only after Austrian team officials promised remuneration and discipline. “He had the same look on his face as when he fell at Nagano.”



Kites Are Da Bomb?

Apparently yes—but only when attached to surfboards for the purpose of grabbing big air


We’re on the doorstep of the next millennium,” proclaims Marcus “Flash” Austin. “And kitesurfing is ushering it in!” Typically, when greeted with such breathless declarations, our response is, well, gack. But if you try to look at it from the standpoint of those who frequent Maui’s Ho’okipa Beach, Austin’s blustery rhetoric begins to make some sense. Here, on any given day, one can find a crowd of tourists gawking as a cluster of boardsailors and surfers strap themselves onto fiberglass boards, don harnesses attached via 100-foot lines to inflatable nylon kites, and go scorching across the ocean at speeds of 35 miles per hour while executing rail grabs, fakies, and double backflips that can send them as much as 40 feet into the air.

A combination of boardsailing, surfing, and paragliding, kitesurfing offers the equivalent of attaching a small airplane engine to the front of your board. “Because of the upward angles of wind force,” says David Dorn, president of the newly formed Maui Kiteboarding Association, “maneuvers and jumps are unlike anything that’s been done before.”

Austin, 28, is the unofficial world champion of a sport that may be on the verge of an X Games-style breakout. And a decade after French brothers Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux first dreamed up this activity in Senegal, Ho’okipa Beach has become its epicenter. Each summer, the area’s robust trade winds, capricious surf, and nerve-jangling minefield of submerged reefs draws a small clique of veteran surfers and boardsailors eager to tap a notch or two deeper into their adrenaline reserves.

This crew, which includes such luminaries as perennial boardsailing world champion Robby Naish and renowned big-wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, will have a chance to showcase its freshest moves next month at the Mondial du Vent festival in Leucate, France. In the meantime, however, the sport must overcome a number of lingering hurdles before it can claim to have attained the status of a full-blown craze. Though Austin makes it sound like child’s play ù “I taught an eight-year-old how to do this in two hours,” he boasts ù kitesurfing has yet to shake the perception that, in the hands of the uninitiated, it can be a foolhardy pursuit. “You’ve got guys cruising along at the end of hundred-foot razor blades with lots of tension on them,” says Naish, referring to the lines that connect surfers to their kites. “If you’re not careful, it can be really dangerous.”



For the Record


Hang on Honey, There's a Goatweed Leafwing in Your Veil
“I've seen people moved to tears!” exclaims salesman Rick Mikula. “If you order three dozen, you can actually hear their wings fluttering. It gets a lot of oohs and ahs.” Unfortunately, Mikula's shipments of live butterflies are provoking blubbery outbursts from more than just weepy-eyed brides. With the spring wedding season just around the corner, entomologists are decrying the latest trend in nuptial fashion: toasting happy couples with swarms of monarchs and painted ladies express-mailed to the ceremony in cardboard boxes at $100 per dozen. “It's environmental terrorism, period,” says Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, which claims that Mikula and his colleagues are spreading diseases among butterflies, muddying the gene pool, and abusing the fragile lepidopterans. “I witnessed a release once, and all the butterflies were crippled,” laments Glassberg. “They just plopped out of the container. It was kinda gross.” To throw a net over the problem, Glassberg and company are going directly to the source: wedding coordinators. “A fair number of people selling butterflies don't know any better,” he says. “But some do, and they sound like tobacco-company executives. They're in denial.”

Alright, If You Guys Insist, I'll Win …
Just after the Association of Surfing Professionals anointed him world champion at last December's Banzai Pipeline on Oahu, Kelly Slater offered up a rather strange victory pronouncement. “Everyone else losing,” he declared, “was an indescribable relief.” Odd, yes, but also appropriate. Slater, who hadn't won a single tour event since the previous March, entered the season's grand finale Pipe Masters languishing in third place. His only hope for victory: the unlikely possibility that Australian rivals Mick Campbell and Danny Wills would tank in the early rounds. Which, fortunately for Slater, they did — opening the door for his sixth world championship. In the wake of this nail-biting triumph, however, Slater may now opt to step down before experiencing the novel taste of defeat. “My goals are focused around things I haven't done before,” he says, hinting — somewhat ambiguously — at perhaps sitting out part of next year's circuit. “It's getting harder to stoke the fire.”

Mel Fisher, 1922-1998
“Mel was the P. T. Barnum of treasure salvors, and I mean that as a compliment,” says Ole Varmer, an attorney with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fisher, who died of cancer late last December at age 76, was arguably the most successful — and controversial — treasure hunter ever to scour the high seas. He achieved something akin to folk hero status among fellow Key Westers for his lucrative discoveries — the biggest being $400 million in gems and doubloons aboard a 16th-century galleon in 1985. And though Fisher also developed a reputation as an obsessive plunderer, those close to him insist that his incandescent optimism, rather than his glittery treasure or his environmental indiscretions, will be his most lasting legacy. “Mel always felt things would fall his way,” says former spokesman Pat Clyne. “And usually, they did.”

And Next Year, Lance Will Be Competing for the Nobel Prize in Literature …
“I'm not showing up as some publicity stunt,” claims 1993 World Champion road racer Lance Armstrong, who has decided there's more to life than a new bride, a remarkable recovery from testicular cancer, and a successful return to his sport. Last December, Armstrong, 27, announced that between the European spring cycling classics, the Tour de France, and October's World Championships, he'll somehow wedge in some single-track contests as a member of the Trek Volkswagen mountain-bike team. “I know what I'm going to whisper to Lance at the start of his opening race,” says fellow crossover cyclist Bob Roll, who'll be on hand this May in Red Wing, Minnesota. “Be careful.”




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