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The Further Explorations of Piotr Chmielinski
From the Colca to the Amazon to Ground Zero
By Mark Jannot

Piotr Chmielinski, one of the world's greatest river explorers, turns his attention—and his legendary determination—to the tainted air at Ground Zero in New York City.

The explorer pages through the photographs, microscope images of ash gathered from the Site, the dust magnified to 400 times actual size. It's eerie.

This isn't billowing smoke; it isn't steel beams twisted around one another like spaghetti; it isn't the cage of a building defining a structure that is nothing now but air. This is a glimpse inside the event itself.

Piotr Chmielinski is sitting in a desk chair inside a hotel room in Lower Manhattan, and he's looking into the heart of a blasted world. He notices minuscule particles of paper. He finds impossibly small specks of wood. He identifies polyester fibers. He sees hair—tiny bits of hair far too small to spot with the unaided eye. . . . And, peering into these photographs, Chmielinski is beginning finally, fully, to comprehend it, the horrific character of this event, the awesome energy and the overwhelming force.

And he notices what look like asbestos fibers, but these fibers, like everything else, have been blown apart—what he sees are tiny bits of thread rather than the braided bundles of intact asbestos. And it scares him.

And something else: It energizes him. It gives him purpose.

* * * *

In 1979, Chmielinski had traveled from his native Poland to Mexico with nine other members of a university kayaking club who christened themselves Canoandes and set forth on a six-month mission to run as many rivers as possible while wending their way south to Argentina and Tierra del Fuego.

One year and ten rivers later, still in Mexico, half of the kayakers returned to Poland with the team's seven-ton military truck and most of its equipment. Finally, a year after that, the five who remained reached Patagonia. Among the 23 rivers they paddled over two years, 13 had never before been run.

Most famously, they survived the river that carves the world's deepest canyon, the Colca, in Peru. To this day, they're the only explorers ever to navigate the Colca's narrow upper stretch, where frequent unpassable stages require brutal portages, and where the canyon walls rise to heights of 12,000 feet [3,658 meters], leaving no possibility of hiking out.

Dazzling as those achievements were, they were utterly eclipsed five years later by Chmielinski's conquest of the Amazon.

It wasn't just that he became the first person in history to paddle the length of the longest river in the world. It was that he signed on to an expedition that he soon discovered to be poorly funded and incompetently led, and he refused even to consider the possibility of allowing it to fail.

On the Amazon, he emerged as a figure out of myth, Gary Cooper with a heavy Polish accent: the quiet man who achieves the impossible through force of titanic will.

* * * *

It is 8 p.m., Tuesday, October 2, 2001. Chmielinski hands me a laminated badge on a chain. Down the left side it reads "WTC 2001"; across the bottom, "9-11-01"; at the top, "World Trade Center Emergency."

Chmielinski fits me with a hard hat and a respirator. He tutors me on how to display the badge and my driver's license for checkpoint inspection. He clips a black box to my belt and threads its thin foot-long [0.3-meter-long] sensor through my belt loops: a carbon monoxide meter.

Tonight, I am a member of Piotr Chmielinski's air-monitoring team. He hands me his "briefcase"—a heavy black toolbox—and arms me with a few final instructions before we trudge south toward the cranes and the lights and the smoke.

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  The Man Who Walked Through Time
Sir Wilfred Thesiger
By Michael Shnayerson

He saw Africa before the automobile, Arabia before the oil boom. At 91, Sir Wilfred Thesiger looks back on a life of exploration.

From a humdrum suburb south of London, my taxi turns up a hill, and the rows of semidetached houses fall away. Horses graze in large, fenced fields.

At a gate that once led to a private estate, a sign announces the Friends of the Elderly. A long, meandering drive leads to two white buildings, institutional now but with a few grace notes of lingering grandeur.

Scattered across a wide, round lawn on folding chairs are a dozen or so white-thatched nursing home residents, reading, watercoloring, or just staring into space. At the front door, by contrast, an alert figure sits erect in a gray three-piece suit, his red tie neatly knotted, his silver hair swept back from his craggy countenance, his hand on a carved-wood Zulu walking stick.

As he rises slowly to greet me, I feel the keenness of his gaze: proud, inquisitive, reserved but welcoming. The greatest living explorer of the 20th century has been waiting for me. Thank God I'm just a minute or two late.

At 91, Sir Wilfred Thesiger is still more active than most of his peers. With effort but determination, the explorer who once crossed unmapped desert sands leads the way up a front hall staircase.

A fellow resident looks up enviously from his walker. "I don't know how he does that," he mutters. Down a winding hall, Thesiger unlocks the door to his modest, windowed room.

One framed photograph shows the 1930 coronation party of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia: There, in the fourth row, is 20-year-old Thesiger, at the start of his adventures. Near the photo hang a silver ceremonial dagger with a dazzlingly ornate case and two sheathed swords, one silver and one gold, all gifts from Arab sheikhs, given to Thesiger during his legendary Saudi Arabian desert travels of 1945 to 1950.

On the bed is a striped African bedspread from his later years in Kenya. Here, too, on his old wooden desk, are page proofs of his latest, and almost certainly last, book: an album of black-and-white photos from his travels in the Middle East and Africa, all taken by Thesiger, many never before seen, titled A Vanished World (HarperCollins).

The book that Thesiger is best known for—the one that made him, to his own surprise, a writer and that put him in the pantheon with Mungo Park, Richard Burton, and T. E. Lawrence—is Arabian Sands. An instant classic when it appeared in 1959, it remains one of the most extraordinary travel chronicles ever published.

In terse, understated prose, Thesiger describes setting out with a band of Bedouins into a region so desolate and harsh that it was known as the Empty Quarter. The bedu, as they were called, were its only inhabitants, crossing the sands by camel and gleefully raiding border tribes when supplies ran low.

Thesiger was determined to travel with the hardiest and most daring of these tribes, the Rashid. He vowed to live up to their standards, to be as spartan as they were, and to be the first Westerner accepted as one of them.

This, to him, was the gratification of travel in its highest form. Anything less was mere entertainment.

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  First One Down!
Olympic Downhill Skier Daron Rahlves
By Paul Hochman

Last year, U.S. ace Daron Rahlves took on Hermann "the Herminator" Maier and the rest of the Austrian ski-racing machine—and won a world title. Maier called it a fluke. In Salt Lake City, Rahlves plans to prove him wrong.

On a winter morning in August at the Portillo ski resort, high in the Chilean Andes, American downhiller Daron Rahlves stretches his hamstrings and tries to ignore his nemesis, Hermann Maier. It is not easy.

The Herminator, the world's greatest downhill racer, is 50 feet [15 meters] away, in the Austrian starting gate, stomping and snorting, shifting back and forth on his huge haunches like a bull in the chute.

Maier is massive, with huge thighs packed like pylons into a silver speed suit, a broad, V-shaped slab of a back, and an enormous head squeezed into a bright yellow helmet. "Hut! Hut!" he grunts. He bares his teeth. "Ha!" he shouts. His coaches bark at him in German, prodding him.

The racket reaches a crescendo. Then Maier vaults out of the gate and onto the headwall. It is suddenly quiet in the starting area, as if all the air had been pulled down the mountain behind him. Somewhere a radio crackles.

Standing in line are a dozen Austrian farm boys, in identical silver speed suits and yellow helmets, each waiting his turn to attack the course.

Rahlves, who represents America's best hope for a skiing gold medal in 2002, is as unassuming as the Herminator is flamboyant. At five feet nine inches [1.75 meters] and 175 pounds [65 kilograms], he is also much smaller. His oversize black helmet and smallish frame make him look like an Ichiro dashboard doll with a bobbing head. He has come to this luxury resort, just northeast of Santiago, with the rest of the U.S. Ski Team to train alongside the formidable Austrian ski-racing machine.

Portillo is the start of the long road that leads to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in February; the first steps on that road may be the most important of Rahlves's career. The downhill—a span of two minutes by which the men on this mountain will be judged for the rest of their lives—is only six months away.

Rahlves slides into the American starting gate and dusts the snow off his 217-centimeter [85.4-inch] Atomics. Planting his poles outside the electric wand, he looks at the red-panel gates that weave across the rolling, treeless snowfield.

In the distance, on the shore of frozen Laguna del Inca, stands the bright yellow Hotel Portillo, the ski area's only lodging. After surveying his line, Rahlves bursts out of the starting house.

He picks up speed like an anvil dropped out of a building.

Within 15 seconds, he is going 75 miles an hour [120 kilometers an hour] down the steeply pitched slope, heading toward the course's first and biggest turn—a 90-degree dogleg to the right called the Juncallilo.

Deep in a turn at high speed, a downhiller has to fight to keep his hands and feet relaxed, even though his head is shaking so hard that he can barely see.

Rahlves dives into the turn. He shifts his hips to the right, eases lightly onto the edges of his skis, and crouches low. Nine sweeping turns angle him toward four rolls that spill out onto the valley floor.

For those waiting just below the first roll, Rahlves is audible before he's visible. First, there's a whoosh. Then, when he appears, head down, his body clenched into a bullet tuck (skiers call it a "bully"), his passing makes a sound like the hissing of a fastball just before it hits the mitt.

The frequency rises to a high whistle as he shoots by, then drops suddenly. Like the siren of a speeding police car, Rahlves creates his own Doppler effect.

Launching off the crest of the first roll, Rahlves will be airborne for 75 feet [23 meters]. Here it comes—hup! He lifts his skis up to his chest just before the jump, gets a jolt of weightlessness, throws his hands down by his boots to stay compact, and lets gravity guide his arc down into the final compression.

At the moment of impact, he experiences a force of 4 or 5 g's. (When lifting off in a space shuttle, astronauts undergo about 3 g's.)

Four turns later, Rahlves passes the electric eye at the finish line. He comes out of his tuck and reduces his speed from sixty to zero in less than a hundred feet [30 meters]. Maier, leaning on his poles on the narrow run-out to the lift, doesn't even bother to look up.

* * * *

After the morning runs, Maier is asked by a reporter if he's learned anything from training with Rahlves and the other Americans. He reflects for a moment. "How to eat a hamburger," he says. When pressed, he elaborates: "Also, how to eat a hot dog."

Later, during a photo shoot on Laguna del Inca, Rahlves needles Maier: "How come you don't talk to me during course inspection?"

Maier, surprised, doesn't answer. Rahlves seems to enjoy having the upper hand in the banter. He presses the Austrian, never taking his eyes off him. "How come you never talk to me? I say hi, and you just grunt."

Maier is uncomfortable being under sudden attack in front of a camera and a couple of bystanders. "You don't say anything to me, either," he finally manages, off balance.

He still looks unsure whether Rahlves is kidding but seems to sense an edge to his tone. Rahlves still has not taken his eyes off the Herminator. It is an odd moment.

In the middle of the Chilean Andes, two of the best downhill skiers in the world are competing while standing still.

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January/February 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Adventurer's Handbook | Sierra Ski Photos | Grand Canyon | Deadly Conservationist | Forum | Snowboard Boots, Bindings | Travel Tools | Everglades Guide




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