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January/February 2001
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10 Emptiest Spots in the Lower 48

*Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Thanks to Burning Man, Black Rock is no longer Nowhere, but beyond the playa's main stem the place is all yours.

*River of No Return, Idaho
Frank Church—River of No Return is the largest contiguous wilderness outside of Alaska.

*Owyhee Desert, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon
Plateaus and high cliff walls bound a lunar landscape of volcanic rubble and seasonal streams.

*Harney County, Oregon
If the wild horses couldn't drag you to this high-desert region, maybe the bighorn sheep, antelope, and scree mountains can.

*Escalante Monument Region, Utah
Beyond Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this region is designated "primitive"—no vehicles, no facilities.

*Box Elder County, Utah
Vast salt flats that melt into mud at the edges—no wonder no one's paved the way to central Box Elder.

*Hot Creek Valley, Nevada
Expansive aspen stands and piñon- and juniper-dotted ridges give way to sandy sagebrush deserts.

*Central Rockies, Wyoming
The southeast corner of Yellowstone—20 miles (32 kilometers) from any publicly maintained road—is by some measures the remotest point in the lower 48.

*Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
Marshall teems with grizzlies, elk, wolves—and hikers. Head for the less maintained trails.

*Great Divide Basin, Wyoming
The basin's shifting sand dunes and oil rigs are increasingly becoming backdrops for mountain biking expeditions.

—McKenzie Funk
  


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Beyond the End of the Road
By Laurence Gonzales

America, Gertrude Stein once said, has more space where nobody is than where anybody is. With that thought in mind, the author set out in a small plane for the vast desert sprawling across the Nevada-Oregon border. What he found, fantastically, was nothing—and lots of it.

Terra incognita.

We came into that land from the rich rolling green fields of the Midwest. The smell of cut hay and fresh manure drifted up through the vents as Jonas and I took long turns flying an airplane whose interior was so tight that sometimes it felt as if we were reclining side by side in dual coffins.

Over Nebraska, the land grew severe and a harder emptiness beckoned. Though we were still on its farthest edge, we could feel the whirling vortex of those vast spaces. Higher and higher we climbed into skies marked only by the smoke from range fires, until the last few scratchings of man were overblown by dust or overgrown by sage. Finally, we could see nothing man-made from horizon to horizon.

Look at any road map. It will show the entire United States, like a sad old bear, snared in a reinforced concrete net of interstate highways. But as you draw your finger out west to the 120th meridian, there's one spot at the 42nd parallel where it looks as if the bear could get a whole paw through. I-84 veers up toward Portland and I-80 dives toward San Francisco, leaving a great swath seemingly untouched. It was there that we had our compass set: the last empty place in the lower 48.

Though we felt increasingly lost, coming into Nevada's Great Basin upon a desolation so complete that neither eye nor airplane could measure it, we were intent on becoming more lost still. And on our second day out, we spotted our portal to Nowhere.

From 50 miles [80 kilometers], the first few white patches were so bright that we thought they must be water. Then we dove down to investigate and saw what appeared to be dry lakes.

We surveyed several small lake beds and selected one in the Black Rock Desert between Jungo and Sulphur, Nevada. It was about nine miles [14.5 kilometers] long and clear of obstacles except for a double row of greasewood bushes cutting across it at an angle. Again and again we flew over, inspecting carefully. If the surface was sand or loose dust, we'd bury our wheels going 90 [145 kilometers an hour], the plane would flip end over end, and . . . well, that would be bad.

I've worked on and off with my companion on this expedition, photographer Jonas Dovydenas, for years, and by now we don't need to say much when we're working. I know what he's going to do and mostly I know why, and sometimes I even know what he's thinking. On our third pass, we were both thinking the same thing: What can we see that will transform a deadly sinkhole into a hard, dry landing place?

Jonas skimmed low over the lake—very low now—and slowed down to minimize the blur, while I craned my neck to look. There was only one sign that we'd bet our lives on.

Neither of us discussed what we both knew: that since at least the big bang, Nature has been trying to make circles, as she did with Earth and moon and stars. But being infinitely patient, she had lost out to impetuous Weather, which dried circles into quick and dirty approximations and made hexagons instead.

"Hexagonal cracks," I said.

He put the gear down and dropped the flaps, and as the airplane settled, we felt the wheels touch a surface that was as smooth and hard as concrete. We both let out our breath as the plane rolled toward the line of head-high bushes.

It was a hot and windy afternoon as we tossed our gear out. We stood alone on alkali hardpack flat as a spirit level, bright as snow. And suddenly we were both seized by laughter: We'd done it. We had set down in the middle of Nowhere, right in the heart of America. Estimated population density: .04 persons per square mile [259 hectares], counting me and Jonas and our 50 square miles [12,950 hectares] of lake bed. And beyond the lake, more saltbush, sage, and cheatgrass. No rules, no fences—we were as free as we were going to get in this life.

La-Z-Boys, brothels, prehistoric carvings, traces of Howard Hughes—our airborne adventurers sifted a whole lot of something from nothing. Get the full story in the January/February 2001 issue. (Subscribe today.)

ADVENTURE Online Extra
Life on Assignment

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*Selkirk Mountain Experience
Think you're ready for Ruedi? Book with his Selkirk Mountain Experience today—reservations often must be made six months in advance.
 


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Ruedi's Way
Skiing With a Canadian Superguide
By Michael Finkel

Backcountry ski guide Ruedi Beglinger will kick your tail in the powder-smothered peaks of southeastern British Columbia. You'll pay him for the experience. And love every minute of it.

Ruedi Beglinger leads a strange and altogether extraordinary life, and if you'd like to join it for a week, it'll cost you a thousand bucks. Ruedi is the proprietor and head guide of Selkirk Mountain Experience, which runs backcountry-skiing trips amid the remote, glacier-cloaked peaks of southeastern British Columbia. His trips are not easy.

They have been described as "brutal" and "sadistic" and as "a twisted form of self-punishment"—and these comments are from people who adore Ruedi, and who return most winters to ski with him.

In some ways, Ruedi is a typical guide. He selects ski runs, assesses avalanche danger, and determines how to avoid crevasses. But unlike most guides—who mitigate the pace of uphill slogs and the difficulty of descents to accommodate the needs of the group, especially its weaker members—Ruedi pushes clients to their limits, proceeding at a clip that falls somewhere between inhuman and light speed, and skis wherever he wishes. This often means steep headwalls; those unable to follow soon find their way to a less intense group. Selkirk Mountain Experience is as much an extension of one man's personality as it is a backcountry-skiing operation. "This is not just my job," says Ruedi. "It's my life."

His life, it turns out, is exceedingly popular. It has been sold-out for nearly a decade. Reservations must be made six months in advance.

Last winter, in mid-January, I flew to British Columbia to try my own turn at participating in Ruedi's life. From December through April each year, Ruedi lives in a two-bedroom pinewood cabin perched on a forested knoll in the midst of a 31-square-mile [8,029-square-kilometer] area he leases from the provincial government. Ruedi built the place himself, by hand. But it's not so spartan as it sounds: Electricity comes from a stream-driven turbine, running water from a glacial lake. He shares the home with his wife, Nicoline, and their daughters, Charlotte, eight, and Florina, six, who are homeschooled. His clients, 20 of them per week, stay in the adjacent 11-room Durrand Glacier Chalet, which has shared bathrooms, a wood-burning stove, and a sauna. Ruedi, of course, built all that, too.

At dawn on a Saturday morning, I gathered with my fellow skiers—eighteen men and two women, all but one from Canada or the United States—at a heliport on the outskirts of Revelstoke, a small city 175 miles [282 kilometers] west of Calgary, Alberta, and awaited my flight. Guests from the previous week were flown out, five at a time, then five people from my ski week were flown in on the Bell LongRanger. The looks on some of the returnees' faces—eyes blank, jaws slack—brought to mind victims of mild trauma. Hurricane survivors, perhaps. "I'm a little bit scared," the man standing next to me said matter-of-factly. Then we boarded the helicopter.

We landed a few minutes later—and about 5,000 vertical feet [1,524 meters] higher—in front of the cabins. It was snowing, and the surrounding peaks were buried in cloud cover. The snowbanks around the cabins towered over my head; each winter 80 feet [24 meters] of snow falls here. A man who'd been shoveling came by and shook my hand.

"I'm Ruedi," he said.

I was momentarily surprised. For someone reputed to be a backcountry martinet, Ruedi does not cut an intimidating figure. He is five feet eight inches tall, with curly, thinning hair and crow's-feet. He possesses the approximate physique of a stick figure. Though it may appear as if a strong wind could upend him, I knew that I was in the presence of a powerhouse. Ten seconds before we'd met, he'd been churning through a snowbank as though he were John Henry racing a steam drill. When we shook hands, he was breathing as if he'd just risen from a nap. Even the way he walked—light-footed, with an easy economy of motion—gave me the sense that he was harboring an energy supply of impressive proportions.

Submit to an awe-inducing, agony-inspiring week with Ruedi in the January/February 2001 issue. (Subscribe today.)

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*Vertical Limit
Ed Viesturs appears in this alpine cliffhanger from Columbia Pictures. Is it the next Eiger Sanction?


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Q&A: 8,000-Meter Man: Ed Viesturs of Vertical Limit
By Michael Shnayerson

Just two summits shy of becoming the first American to scale all of the Himalaya's tallest peaks, mountaineering superstar Ed Viesturs takes on a new role—playing himself in the Hollywood action flick Vertical Limit.

Ed Viesturs climbs mountains for fun, and maybe for glory, but clearly not for financial gain. His house in West Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two small children, is sweetly modest, on a hillside street of other such houses, graced by a bit of picket fence and a postage-stamp-size front yard. It might be the house of a carpenter, or of a veterinarian, both of which Viesturs was before climbing consumed his life. These days, his focus is pursuing his bid to become the first American to scale all 14 of the Himalaya's 8,000-meter [26,248-foot] peaks, including Mount Everest, K2, and Annapurna.

* * * *

A deep sense of caution is one of Viesturs's hallmarks. Another is the genetic good luck that gives him a high VO2 max (the amount of oxygen his body uses with each breath) and a high anaerobic threshold, which lets him charge uphill, nonstop, much longer than the average Joe. The few climbers who can ascend without oxygen tanks in high altitudes tend to look desperate as they reach the top. Viesturs looks unfazed—as close to Superman, [climber David] Breashears has said, as mere mortals get. A less admiring label has been affixed to Viesturs, too: that of "peak bagger," a man so intent on climbing all 14 of the 8,000-meter [26,248-foot] Himalayan peaks that he chooses the safest routes, and in so doing shirks the toughest technical challenges.

Both in his modest manner and in his sensible response, Viesturs belies the charge: Climbing 8,000-meter [26,248-foot] peaks by any route, he points out, is far more arduous and life threatening than, say, tackling many of the Seven Summits. And Viesturs has turned back within sight of a summit often enough to seem anything but peak greedy. Yet he does keep trying to complete his collection. Last spring, he and his favorite climbing partner, Veikka Gustafsson of Finland, at last took on the mountain that had fired Viesturs's childhood imagination. But hopes of making Annapurna number 13 on the list died when the climbers reached Camp II and saw dangers that neither of them wanted to risk.

This spring, Viesturs hopes to reclimb the peak called Xixabangma—both to silence mutterings that his first ascent was less than perfect and to acclimatize himself for a quick alpine climb of Nanga Parbat, which will become number 13 on his list if he reaches its summit, leaving only Annapurna left to go. Meanwhile, Viesturs has to contend with a new challenge—celebrity—after playing himself in the new mountain-climbing drama, Vertical Limit, starring Chris O'Donnell, which opened on December 8.

Mountaineering's Superman sounds off in an exclusive ADVENTURE Q&A—only in the January/February 2001 issue. (Subscribe today.)

ADVENTURE online extra: Watch the Vertical Limit theatrical film trailer.
RealPlayer 56.6 | WinMedia 56.6

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*Starfleet Eco Adventures
Take a two-tank scuba dive in the Bocas del Toro islands—starting at U.S. $35.

*Tropic Star Lodge
Fish from the site of more than 40 world angling records.

*Chiriquí River Rafting
Run Class III and IV rapids in western Panama.

*Gamboa Rainforest Resort
This newly opened hostelry offers four-night nature-wildlife packages for U.S. $675 per person.
 


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Hey, Panama . . .
By Christopher R. Cox

The bridge between the Americas has forest trails haunted by pirates, archipelagos slumbering in the back of beyond, and jungles that defied developers. So where are the tourists?

Broccoli. From the rattling window of the small plane, it's all I can see: an undulating, unbroken expanse of huge florets stretching into the distance. Somewhere in this immense produce section lie an airstrip and a small camp—the last outpost of law and order and decent coffee until the naval base at Juradó, Colombia, some 40 miles [64 kilometers] to the south. Check that: Narco rebels overran Juradó six weeks ago, an attack that left 42 guerrillas, 23 Colombian marines, and one police officer dead.

Our pilot hardly seems concerned about the potential for danger. He finishes reading the sports page and takes the controls from his copilot. The nine-seat Islander skirts an ominous, jungled ridge, gains altitude, then wallows through a saddle in the mountains, clearing the salad bar vegetation by not more than a hundred feet [30 meters]. An hour ago, we buzzed the money-laundered skyline of Panama City. Now there is nothing. Only broccoli.

The pilot yanks the plane into a hard turn, and we fall down an emerald tunnel. Startled red-and-green macaws rise like emergency flares. The leafy walls swell. A stall light flashes on the plane's control panel. Then comes a downpour of noise, and somehow we're bouncing up a grassy clearing toward olive-drab men.

Bienvenido a Darién.

As I step out of the plane, I count half a dozen wary soldiers eyeing the tree line. With the porous Colombian border less than ten miles [16 kilometers] away, this forest shelters all kinds of wildlife, including drug-trafficking guerrillas and paramilitary soldiers. From the barracks, a tinny radio blares jaunty, accordion-fueled music. I approach a young Policía Nacional grunt. "¿Que arma?" I ask.

He smiles, cradles his weapon. "Ah kay cuarenta siete."

AK-47.

I'm a long way from the Caribbean's legions of sunburned hedonists, nowhere near a strawberry daiquiri, light-years beyond an all-inclusive resort. Yet, here in Panama, on the frontier of tourism, the music kicks, 12-year-old rum is dirt cheap, and dead U.S. Presidents are the official currency. I've come to the perfect place.

Bushwhack your way through the pleasures of "the perfect place"—not to mention the guerrillas, thugs, and bugs—in the January/February 2001 issue. (Subscribe today.)

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