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July/August 2000
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Master of the Ego Challenge
By Gretchen Reynolds

With the debut of CBS's Survivor, adventure entrepreneur Mark Burnett has found a fresh way to physically and psychologically afflict eager volunteers—and to take made-for-TV adventuring to new, um, heights.

When Mark Burnett is anxious, he rolls objects in his hands. He palms them, molds them, pounds them flat. At the moment, he's liquefying a strawberry snatched from the lacquered refreshment spread set up by the Santa Monica Doubletree hotel. Outside, the California sun falls warm and pellucid on this early February morning, but inside the hotel's top-floor Presidential Suite, there's a chill. Today is the final day of casting for Burnett's Survivor show, the much-hyped reality soap/adventure challenge airing on CBS this summer. Pitting 16 castaways against one another for possession of a million dollars, Survivor may represent the zenith of manipulated, televised adventuring, a kind of Swiss Family Robinson as rejiggered by Machiavelli and MTV. The stakes are enormous, both for CBS, which is footing much of the multimillion-dollar cost of casting and filming the show in Borneo, and for Burnett, who has never produced a network show before.

So he's smashing finger food.

"I was awake all night obsessing about this," he announces to the two casting agents and the television producer in the room with him. Popping the sodden strawberry in his mouth, he reaches for a miniature muffin. "The way I see it, we need to find people who are wild, a little out there, kooky even." The muffin arcs from hand to hand. "But no psychopaths." Crumbs fall wanly to the floor. "Our insurance won't cover a nut case."

Reality-soap adventure is a taxing enterprise. Burnett, at 39, knows this. Since the mid-1990s, he has been the nation's premier mano-a-mano, faux-outdoor-challenge entrepreneur, playing a large role in shaping our pop-culture notion of "adventure." Recognizing a rising curve, he began with adventure racing, which is now touted as the fastest-growing team sport in America. Under the aegis of his company, Eco-Challenge Lifestyles, he staged the first Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in 1995. Within two years, the event was attracting millions of dollars in entry fees, major sponsorship from Subaru and Columbia Sportswear, and about seven million U.S. viewers for the race's five-hour distillation on cable.

Burnett grew restless under the mantle of success. "I like to think of myself as an empowered and bloody smart marketer," Burnett says, traces of his English childhood cockney burbling up through the SoCalspeak. "But a good salesman needs new and improved product." So in a few short years, he has created an outdoor empire, founding the Eco-Challenge Travel agency, the Eco-Challenge Lifestyles Web site, and, most important, Survivor, which debuted on CBS May 31. The show is one of the boldest outdoor-programming experiments ever, melding two seemingly disparate but similarly trendy preoccupations of modern America: the allure of the outdoors and of plentiful, easy bucks.

To succeed, however, such small-screen, high-stakes adventuring requires another element, as Burnett realizes: entertainment value. "Casting this thing is friggin' awful," he moans as he settles back into the suite's club chair. "People have to want to sleep with our cast, you know. But they have to identify with 'em, too, so they can't all look like bloody Julia Roberts. There has to be some Alan Alda." Already by 10 a.m. he and his caffeinated suitemates have seen—and dismissed—two Survivor hopefuls. Culled from more than 6,000 applicants, they and the other 46 semifinalists have submitted enthusiastic and sometimes eye-poppingly lewd videotapes. One featured a bikini-clad woman grilling steaks; as the camera zoomed in, it became clear that the bikini was, in fact, fashioned from raw meat. Another applicant swung from a tree, yodeling as his loincloth flipped up in the breeze. All the aspirants also completed lengthy questionnaires that asked, among many other things, which Gilligan's Island castaway they identify with. The results have yielded a cross section of thrill seekers, from a happy-go-lucky, college-age ski bum to a 72-year-old retired Navy SEAL.

Still, Burnett isn't satisfied. Earlier today he grilled a polite young Survivor wannabe about whether he would ever sleep with a "slutty" girl ("Uh, is it a requirement?" the startled 26-year-old accountant had replied). Afterward, Burnett had damned him as "so friggin' Clark Kent my eyes glazed over." The next supplicant provoked a similar reaction, albeit for different reasons. Dubbed "the Sex Kitten" by the room, she'd sashayed in in full sartorial Brockovich, and proceeded to alternately tease and bore. "All cleavage, no charisma," Burnett had concluded.

But as an assertive knock sounds on the suite's door, Burnett perks up. "This one's gonna be good," he tells the room. "I interviewed her already. She's smart, sexy, tough, a Stanford law grad." He adds cheerfully, "And she's a mess, too, lots of mother issues. She'll be great."

In the calculus of modern, made-for-television adventuring, clearly, glossy surfaces count for plenty. But you must have emotional depth, too. "My particular entertainment product is about what happens when man pits himself against nature," Burnett had mused a few days earlier. "As I see it, it's what people are looking for these days." Without a pause, he had added, "And there's lots of money in that market, mate."

Can Mark Burnett survive Gretchen Reynolds's pen? See the July/August ADVENTURE for the full story.
(Subscribe today.)

ADVENTURE Online Extra
Q&A: A Survivor Castaway Tells All


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The Normans' Conquest
By Geoffrey Norman

On every big climb if you're lucky, there's a window of opportunity to summit. In a relationship between a father and daughter, there may be only one chance to take on a mountain like Aconcagua.

We had a three-day trek ahead of us, and this would be the easy part. The weather was good, we had fresh legs, and our packs were light. We wouldn't get our first look at the mountain we had come here to climb until the end of the second day, so it all seemed a little theoretical until about an hour into the hike, when we met our first climber on his way out.

The man was wearing long-sleeved, polypropylene underwear and a pair of khaki shorts, with Tevas on his feet and a gimme hat on his head. Sunglasses and a two-week beard covered his face. He was riding a mule and muttering to himself over and over through blistered lips: "I couldn't make it. I just couldn't make it."

* * *

A guide on horseback who accompanied the defeated climber seemed sublimely indifferent to the man's laments, but they made a deep impression on me.

What have I gotten us into? I asked myself.

The "us" was critical. If I'd come to the mountain alone, it wouldn't have been a big deal whether I summited or not, suffered or not, lost fingers and toes or not. (It was only remotely possible that I'd die, although more than a dozen people had perished on the mountain the previous year.) On this trip, however, my 21-year-old daughter was with me. If anything happened to Brooke, I would be responsible, even if it wasn't my fault. That's the deal when you are a parent.

But where I'd seen an omen (and maybe myself) on that mule, I sensed that Brooke had seen only a middle-aged man who couldn't cut it. I watched as she moved out ahead of me with the rest of our group. There was youthful confidence in her walk and in the way she carried her pack; I hoped it would still be there in three weeks—after we had summited and come down off the mountain.

* * *

In February Brooke and I flew to Santiago, Chile, where we met the two guides and six other clients. Brooke and I were the anomalies. She was the only woman and I was the oldest by a good ten years. The other clients were middle-class men of middle age, or close to it. They had good jobs, but they were looking, like so many people these days, for something to give them a pump. None of us was an expert mountaineer; Brooke and I were the least experienced.

Our guide, Jim Williams of Jackson, Wyoming-based Professional Mountain Guides, and his assistant Matt Goewert briefed us on what to expect. Then we all went out to dinner to get acquainted. By the end of the evening, we were no longer strangers, though we still were not teammates.

In the morning we set out on a half-day bus ride northeast to the trailhead, where we overnighted at an out-of-season ski resort. Then we began the three-day trek to the base camp.

By noon of the second day, we had walked 20 miles along the floodplains of silty, glacier-fed rivers. It had been hot and monotonous, more like desert travel than mountain climbing. Brooke's fair skin burned in the relentless sun. By the time we stopped for lunch, she was dehydrated and struggling.

She dropped her pack and collapsed on the rocky ground. "Drink some water and eat some food," I said, handing her my water bottle. She had the pale, damp skin that comes with heat exhaustion, and she was already straining to breathe in the thin air at about 11,000 feet. I felt that old sense of helpless inadequacy, going back to when she'd been a baby, screaming with an earache.

"I'll be OK," she said, weakly.

She was wearing a dark polypropylene top, like the climber on the mule. I gave her a lighter, white shirt that I wear when I'm on a bonefish flat. "That's better," Williams said. "Now, how about a hat?"

A fellow climber gave Brooke a long-billed hat, and helped her rig a bandanna that covered her neck. Williams gave her extra-strength sunblock. Someone else filled her water bottle while she ate some cheese and sausage and a PowerBar. (Her pack was full of them, mostly banana flavored.) She gained strength that afternoon, and made it to our second camp easily. We had survived our first crisis, one that would shrink to laughable insignificance in the coming days.

The Normans endure—in both senses of the word—in the full article, only in the July/August ADVENTURE.
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ADVENTURE Online Extra
From the Field: Brooke Norman's Side of the Story


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Vail's Dirty Secret
By Steve Casimiro

Psst. The United States' number one ski resort is even better for mountain biking.

My guides have graciously allowed me to go first, to let me have my first ride in Vail without distraction or interference, and I have just as graciously bombed off the front so as not to slow them down. Now I'm flying far too fast for my own good down this remarkable Meadow Mountain trail. Indian paintbrush dabbles my socks and lupine kisses my shorts, leaving smudges of pollen as evidence. It's a gorgeous setting—against the background of the sky-scratching Gore Range—on a beautiful summer day in the Rocky Mountains, but I'm thinking less about the visuals than the slope.

It's almost a roller coaster, but roller coasters provide none of this natural joy.

I trace the earth's contours at high speed, trusting both bike and trail to carry me through constant changes in direction. The fear of crashing feeds the buzz, but trust in this trail seems well-placed as I swoop from wide meadows into narrowly spaced aspens. I fly into the air over a blind roller and take it on faith that the trail will rise to meet me on the other side.

My knobbies touch down on some of the richest, tackiest soil I've ever felt, a deep brown confection seemingly made for mountain biking. The trail banks right, and I follow it, tipping over almost sideways, like a motorcycle in a velodrome, white wildflowers on the forest floor streaking by like hyperspace.

The trail changes in topography, but not aesthetics. It slides effortlessly from allegro to adagio, the pace quickening and slowing with each turn. Then, before I know it, the trail has tapered to the valley floor, and it's over.

Wow, I think. That may have been the best trail in the world.

The day after that glorious ride, I rendezvous at The Grind coffee den with an old mountain biking friend, a local named Sinuhe Schrecengost. Dark, handsome, and personable, Sinuhe is good company under any conditions and will be an excellent guide for a loop that will take us over Vail Mountain, down a canyon to the edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness, through the town of Minturn, and back to Vail along the banks of the Eagle River and Gore Creek. We toss down the purest distillation of espresso available, a brew that hints of Meadow Mountain's soil, and blast outside, charged up and ready to ride.

We make it as far as the Vail gondola, barely a mile from the java pit, before we cross a philosophical Rubicon. We could ride all the way up Vail Mountain, all 3,000 vertical feet [914 meters] of it, or we could hop the gondola for a 2,000-foot [610-meter] boost, saving considerable time and effort. I, of course, am weak from a cold, and Sinuhe, well, he rides here every day and it's not like he needs to prove a point or anything, so after about 10 or 15 nanoseconds of debate we get on the gondola and don't look back.

Get the full story, plus an Adventure Guide to pedaling Vail's trails, in the July/August issue of ADVENTURE.
(Subscribe today.)

ADVENTURE Online Extra
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Haiti—Walking With the Spirits in the Massif de la Selle
By Michael Finkel

How far can you go on U.S. $1,500? We went to Morocco, Thailand, Haiti, and Turkey, for starters (separate trips, of course). Here, an excerpt from the land that hiking forgot.

Nobody hikes in Haiti. It's true. Hiking in Haiti is an unknown concept. I learned this my first day in Port-au-Prince, when a man named Stephen approached me on the street and asked if I needed a guide. He said he knew everything there was to know about Haiti. I was hoping, I explained, to hike south from Port-au-Prince, over the Massif de la Selle, and down to the Caribbean Sea. Stephen scrunched his face and looked at me in a peculiar way.

"Hike?" he said. He spoke English but had never heard of the word. This was understandable. Haiti is a poor country, one of the poorest in the world, and to most of its citizens the notion of heading into the hills for a bit of jaunty sightseeing would probably seem ludicrous.

"Walk," I said, by way of correction, moving two fingers in a scissoring motion. "I want to walk over the mountains. Can you do that?"

Stephen nodded, and his facial muscles relaxed for an instant before tightening again into the pursed appearance of mild insult. "I am Haitian," he said. "Of course I can walk."

This much I had already suspected. The small map of Haiti that I'd brought with me, not a particularly detailed one, was filigreed with dashed lines. At first I'd thought the dashes indicated dirt roads. Then I looked at the map's key: "Footpath," they were labeled. What could be better than taking a walk in a nation where walking seems to be the national pastime?

The idea, I confess, was not wholly my own. My travel partner, photographer Chris Anderson, had once spent several months in Haiti working for a relief organization, and had become enchanted with the country—its spin art colors, its convoluted history, its complete lack of tourism. Haiti, Chris said, is difficult to travel in. The nation has a sad legacy of political violence. But unlike, say, in Egypt or even Florida, none of this violence is directed at tourists. Certainly, Chris told me, Haiti is a place where street smarts should be applied, and where it's best to hire a guide to serve as a cowcatcher for panhandlers. If you like trips to be ass-on-the-line adventurous, then Haiti may prove to be the most unforgettable place you'll ever experience. If the notion of lizards in your bed and street kids at your legs is off-putting, you may want to visit another country.

Find out just how ass-on-the-line adventurous Haiti can be in the July/August issue of ADVENTURE.
(Subscribe today.)


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