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Exploring the Place of Fright
Belize's Sacred Maya Caverns
By David Roberts

Archaeologist Jaime Awe knows the Maya underworld of Belize better than anyone else alive. DAVID ROBERTS accompanied him on an exploration into flooded caverns, past razor-sharp limestone fins, and to chambers strewn with the bones of human sacrifices—a nightmarish realm that is the new frontier of Maya studies.

It was early March, the middle of Belize's dry season, yet our faces streamed with sweat in the 95°F [35°C] jungle humidity. After a two-mile [three-kilometer] hike, we arrived at the cave. We strapped on our helmets, cinched down our dry bags, flipped on our headlamps, and started across the pool just inside the cavern's hourglass-shaped mouth.

There was just one problem: I have never learned to swim—and the water here reached depths of 15 feet [4.6 meters]. Bound inside a puffy life jacket, I tentatively worked my way into the water, then flailed across and seized the shore on the other side. Tiny fish nibbled my calves, and dark shapes flitted overhead: vampire bats.

Discarding the cumbersome life jacket, I stepped back into the now waist-deep stream, following close behind Jaime Awe (AH-way), who is Belize's foremost archaeologist and who knows these caves better than anyone alive. Just behind us were photographer Stephen Alvarez and his assistant, Alan Cressler—expert cavers both.

We shuffled forward until we came to what cavers call "breakdown"—a talus pile of collapsed boulders, here half-submerged in the wall-to-wall stream. I made my way over this chaos gingerly: The grotto was filled with limestone fins and prongs so sharp that a slip or fall might gash you to the bone.

Half an hour in, ducking to sidle through an unlikely slot, then stumbling shoulder deep against the current, I realized that, alone, I would now have been completely lost. We came to a boulder that looked like any of several dozen we had already passed. I would have plunged on upstream, but Awe said, "No, up here."

He climbed the back of the boulder, stepped high onto a jutting shelf, and scrambled up a steep slope into the darkness. As we followed, the sound of the river faded below. Gradually, the slope eased, and the passage opened around us. At last we reached a broad terrace where rimstone dams sectioned off dry pools. The chamber lay 700 yards [640 meters] from the entrance—not far, if you were walking along a sidewalk, but a considerable journey inside a cave.

As my headlight swept the space, I caught my breath. In 14 years of exploring prehistoric Anasazi sites in the American Southwest, hundreds of days of poking through canyons and across plateaus, I have come upon exactly six intact or nearly intact ceramic vessels. Now, all around me, ranging in size from a drinking mug to a vase big enough to hold a small tree—everywhere I looked were pots, dozens of them.

As I stood gaping at the extraordinary assortment of ancient vessels, Alvarez wandered deeper into the cave. Soon it was his turn to let out an involuntary curse of astonishment. My eyes followed the beam of his headlamp. In the middle of the chamber lay an upright human skull, the eye sockets empty, the jaw still grinning in its rictus of death. The top of the forehead had a flattened, almost simian look about it. Each of the four incisors in the upper jaw had been filed into a tripartite fang.

Go deeper into the dark underworld of the Maya—read the full story in the July/August 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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Life on Assignment: On the Job in the Place of Fright
Human sacrifice, flesh-infesting worms, flooded caverns—photographer Stephen Alvarez reveals the secrets of the nightmare caves of Belize, and of life in the field for Adventure.

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Related Web Sites

Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project
At the official site of archaeologist Jaime Awe's organization, you can apply to study with him in the field, among other things.

Inside Chiquibul: Central America's Longest Cave in 360°
A National Geographic team, including photographer Stephen Alvarez, spent days on end shedding light on underground wonders. Get the picture through high-tech imagery.

 
 
  Last Man Flying
By Jeff Wise

Meet John Graybill—legendary bush pilot, notorious poacher in Alaska's Outlaw Wars, and, at 70 years old, the last of a dying breed.

It was a blustery Sunday afternoon in early December 1973, cold and overcast, when John Graybill took off from Alaska's Kodiak Island. He and his 16-year-old daughter, Teri, had been visiting friends for the weekend, and now they were heading home to Anchorage in Graybill's tiny Piper Super Cub.

Once airborne, Graybill turned north and flew over the whitecaps of Shelikof Strait. With winter setting in, daylight was scarce, and soon the plane was shrouded in darkness.

The Super Cub had been in the air for less than an hour when the engine started to sputter. Graybill, a seasoned pilot, brought the plane down beneath the clouds and began searching for a place to land.

On he flew through the darkness—until, ahead in the distance, he made out a single point of light, which turned out to be a fishing trawler. Nursing the ailing engine along, Graybill took the plane in as close to the ship as he could and managed a nearly impossible feat—setting down in 20-foot [6-meter] waves without flipping over.

As seawater poured into the mangled cockpit, Graybill and his daughter struggled out into the frigid ocean. Since he rarely flew over open water, Graybill didn't carry life preservers or survival gear. He hoisted Teri up onto the tail and treaded water, fighting for air amid the pounding waves. As a deadening chill crept through his body, Graybill called up to his daughter to ask if the trawler was turning around. "No, Dad," she replied. "It just kept on going."

Gradually, the plane slipped beneath the surface, and the Graybills treaded water together in the darkness. "Dad," Teri called out to her father. "Are we going to die?"

"Yes, honey, we are," he answered. "I sure feel awful about getting you into this mess."

"That's OK, Dad," she said. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather die with than you."

Get the full story in the July/August 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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National Geographic's Alaska: The Great Land
With due respect to Texas, it's all bigger in Alaska: the land, the wildlife, the stories. Visit via photos, interviews, travel guides, and more.

 

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  Mount Shasta
Everest for the Rest of Us
By Steve Casimiro

Pyramid power: Mount Shasta, northern California's most iconic landmark, offers accessible big-mountain challenges.

I tried to meditate, I really did. The monk at Archangel Michael's Soul Therapy Center was so gracious, after all, to let me kneel inside his $3,000 "metatronic" pyramid of copper tubing. And this was Mount Shasta, home of a legendary power vortex, one of the seven sacred New Age summits, site of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence, and a place surpassed only by Sedona, Arizona, in the hearts of crystal lovers everywhere. Problem was, instead of feeling the power of the pyramid, I could only hear the words of the monk. "‘Meta' means ‘future,' and ‘tronic' means ‘of God,'" he was explaining. "Basically, it enables the divinity within yourself."

A lexicographer might quibble with his definitions, but what kept coming between me and meditative bliss was the thought of why anyone in search of peace would spend $3,000 on a Tinkertoy pyramid when a far bigger, free one lay right out the back door.

Just 300 freeway miles [483 kilometers] from San Francisco, the vast and eminently explorable region around Mount Shasta offers recreation beyond compare, including mountaineering, skiing, mountain biking, climbing, bouldering, kayaking, fly-fishing, and hiking.

Known more for attracting the weird than the wired, the 14,162-foot-high [4,317-meter-high] dormant volcano has yet to be overrun by urban escapees, despite being such a perfect peak for beginning and expert mountaineers alike that it's been called the Bay Area's Everest. If you can't find serenity on this mountain, which so dominates the visual and psychic landscapes of northern California, you surely won't find it inside a metatronic pyramid.

But some people would probably consider my form of soul therapy equally odd: It was the second week of July, and I was about to begin a week of nonstop motion.

After the long drive up from my home in southern California, I washed away the road miles in the frigid water of Siskiyou Lake and drank in the view of Shasta's nearby flank. Then, closer up, on Shasta's west side, I got dirty again following a couple of local mountain bikers down a series of unnamed trails that culminated in a steep descent down a rocky sluice. Later, I followed these same guys through the bear country of Rainbow Ridge, where the west-face views of Shasta frequently pull your eyes from the trail.

Unlike Moab, Utah, the Shasta region doesn't have an extensive town-based trail network. Nevertheless, when I got my hands on a Siskiyou County cycling map, I could see Shasta's potential: There are literally hundreds of miles of trails in the area. "This place could be as good as Downieville," says local rider Sig Orwig, referring to the popular mountain biking destination in the Sierras 150 miles [241 kilometers] to the south.

The next day, I headed to the Castle Crags, a granitic intrusion of Sierra-style rock just southwest of Shasta that has climbs ranging in difficulty from a moderate 5.6 to a challenging 5.12. The Crags offer more than 4,000 scalable acres [1,619 hectares] in a state park and still more in an adjoining wilderness, yet in all that terrain there are fewer than a hundred named routes. Not many visitors climb, it would seem, because I saw no other people in the park.

That night, too, when I went bouldering with a crew of locals near Sand Flat on Mount Shasta itself, we had the place to ourselves. We were barely five minutes off Everitt Memorial Highway, the winding asphalt ribbon that leads to Shasta's most popular trailheads, on rocks that offered years of climbing challenges, yet we had complete solitude.

Get the full story and an Adventure Guide to Mount Shasta—all part of our inside guide to California's great wild north—in the July/August 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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Related Web Sites

Castle Crags State Park
Spires of granite rising from a pristine river valley make this one of the United States' most scenic climbing meccas.

Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Check here for both campground and backcountry sites in the Shasta area.

 

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  Extreme Classics
The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time
By Anthony Brandt

Crossing a continent, surviving Everest, circling the dark side of the moon—every great adventure is a tale waiting to be told. In the July/August 2001 Adventure we present the books that tell those tales best.

1. The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

As War and Peace is to novels, so is The Worst Journey in the World to the literature of polar travel: the one to beat.

The author volunteered as a young man to go to the Antarctic with Robert Falcon Scott in 1910; that, and writing this book, are the only things of substance he ever did in life. They were enough.

The expedition set up camp on the edge of the continent while Scott waited to go for the Pole in the spring. But first, Cherry-Garrard and two other men set out on a midwinter trek to collect emperor penguin eggs.

It was a heartbreaker: three men hauling 700 pounds [318 kilograms] of gear through unrelieved darkness, with temperatures reaching 50, 60, and 70 degrees below zero [-46, -51, and -57 degrees Celsius]; clothes frozen so hard it took two men to bend them.

But Cherry-Garrard's greater achievement was to imbue everything he endured with humanity and even humor. And—as when he describes his later search for Scott and the doomed South Pole team—with tragedy as well. His book earns its preeminent place on this list by captivating us on every level: It is vivid; it is moving; it is unforgettable.
 

2. Journals, by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1814)

Are there two American explorers more famous? Were there any braver?

When they left St. Louis in 1804 to find a water route to the Pacific, no one knew how extensive the Rocky Mountains were or even exactly where they were, and the land beyond was terra incognita.

Lewis and Clark's Journals are the closest thing we have to a national epic, and they are magnificent, full of the wonder of the Great West. Here are the first sightings of the vast prairie dog cities; here are huge bears that keep on coming at you with five or six bullets in them, Indian tribes with no knowledge of white men, the mountains stretching for a thousand miles [1,600 kilometers]; here are the long rapids, the deep snows, the ways of the Sioux, Crow, Assiniboin; here are buffalo by the millions. Here is the West in its true mythic proportions.

Historian Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage gives a fine overview, but to hear the adventure in the two captains' own dogged, rough-hewn words, you need the complete Elliott Coues edition in three volumes. Buy all three. Dive in. Rediscover heroism.
 

3. Wind, Sand & Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1940)

Saint-Exupéry was without question the great pilot-poet of the air. And this remarkable classic attains its high ranking here by soaring both as a piece of writing and as a tale of adventure.

It was Saint-Exupéry's job in the 1920s to fly the mail from France to Spain across the Pyrenees, in all kinds of weather, with bad maps and no radio.

The engine on his plane would sometimes quit, he says, "with a great rattle like the crash of crockery. And one would simply throw in one's hand: there was no hope of refuge on the rocky crust of Spain." Nor in North Africa. He came down once in the Libyan Desert, and there was no water. He and his companion tramped this way and that and found no hope.

"Nothing is unbearable," he tells us after a while. "Tomorrow, and the day after, I should learn that nothing was really unbearable." He is calm about it, thoughtful, disinterested, yet at the same time intense, riveting. He takes us to places between impossible hope and endless despair we did not know existed.
 

4. Exploration of the Colorado River, by John Wesley Powell (1875)

Powell lost most of his right arm fighting for the Union, but that didn't stop him from leading the first descent of the Grand Canyon.

The year was 1869, and he and his nine men started on the Green River in wooden boats. "We have an unknown distance yet to run," writes Powell, "an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well!" Ah, well, indeed. The rapids were overpowering. They lost boats and supplies. They ran out of food. Near the end, three of the men lost their nerve and climbed out of the canyon; they were killed by Indians. The others stayed with Powell and survived.

Powell himself was an unusual man—tough, driven, hard to please. He was also a thoughtful man, a friend of Native Americans, and a gifted geologist. It is this combination—deep curiosity allied with great courage—that makes the book a classic.
 

5. Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger (1959)

The southern Arabian desert, a quarter million square miles [647,500 square kilometers] of sand, is now a place of oil wells and Land Rovers, but before the 1950s it was still known as the Empty Quarter, a place you entered only on camel and only as an Arab.

Only a few white men had ever seen it, much less crossed it. From 1945 to 1950, the British Thesiger crossed it twice, living with the Bedouin, sharing their hard lives.

His book is the classic of desert exploration, a door opening on a vanished feudal world. It is a book of touches, little things—why the Bedouin will never predict the weather ("since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God"), how they know when the rabbit is in its hole and can be caught.

It is written with great respect for these people and with an understanding that acknowledges its limits. With humility, that is, which is appropriate. Fail the humility test, and the desert will surely kill you.

For all the 100 "extreme classics," pick up the July/August 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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Related Web Sites

Adventurous Traveler Bookstore
GORP's database contains more than 3,000 books, maps, CD-ROMs, and posters.

Lewis and Clark Expedition Gallery
In the uncharted West they expected to find mammoths, a mountain of salt, and other exotica. Some of what they did see remains unspoiled. See for yourself.

 

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