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From the Print Edition, May 2003
 
Wild in the Parks
America's National Park System is huge—84,238,386 acres, at last count—and time is short. Why not start at the top? Here are 20 classic trips—and smart new ways to do them—in some of the country's greatest parks.

By Jim Gorman

Arches National Park, UT
Discover Abbey's Wilds

This is the most beautiful place on earth," Edward Abbey wrote of the Arches region in his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire. Then he did his damnedest to discourage anyone from visiting it. What Abbey feared would happen to his beloved desert redoubt has largely come to pass: Autos clog the park's main road, and hikers crowd the few, short trails. But of the park's 2,200 arches, only a fraction are ever visited. To reach such spans as Cliff Arch—a 28-foot-wide rock bridge that Abbey himself discovered in the 1950s—you have to enter the park's sketchily mapped, rarely visited backcountry.

Doing so requires environmental sensitivity—fragile desert soils are easily destroyed by careless tramping—and experience with off-trail route-finding. Desert Highlights, the park's sole backcountry outfitter, leads ambitious full-day trips with hiking and canyoneering. Reaching Cliff Arch, in the Fiery Furnace area, requires you to scramble across slickrock and zigzag through a labyrinth of sandstone shark fins. From there, you make a series of roped descents—of up to 120 feet (37 meters)—into a deep gorge known as Lomatium Canyon. "I was with three firefighters from Las Vegas who wanted to push it," says guide Matt Moore of Desert Highlights. "We ended up discovering an arch that wasn't yet on the park's official registry. We called it Fireman's Arch."

Information: 435-719-2299;
www.nps.gov/arch
The rock spans and narrow passageways of Lomatium Canyon are accessible year-round, but summer temperatures can top one hundred degrees. One-day (six- to nine-hour) canyoneering trips with Desert Highlights (800-747-1342; www.deserthighlights.com) cost $108 per person for groups of three or more.

Yellowstone National Park, WY
Explore Backcountry Geysers
It's still possible to capture something of the awe that gripped Lt. Gustavus C. Doane in 1870 when his expedition to Yellowstone stumbled upon Old Faithful. "The beauty of the scene is overpowering," wrote the normally phlegmatic Doane in a report he sent back to Washington. The discovery motivated Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872—the first such preserve in the world. Today, visitors can plant themselves on benches in front of Old Faithful or take a boardwalk to Grand Prismatic Spring.

Experiencing wild Yellowstone as Doane did, however, requires a push into the backcountry, where many of the park's 10,000 known geothermal features steam and spout. To reach some of the best sites, launch a canoe at Lewis Lake and paddle three days up the Lewis Channel into Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48, or hike the ten miles there via the Shoshone Trail. The Shoshone Geyser Basin lacks a geyser with the major hydraulics of Old Faithful, but it also lacks the guardrails and crowds. Once there, you can explore at will among seven different groups of geysers, boiling springs, and steaming cones.

Information: 307-344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell
Paddling Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (Falcon, $11) is a useful boating guide. Canoes and kayaks can be rented in nearby Jackson, Wyoming. The Yellowstone Association Institute (307-344-2289; www.yellowstoneassociation.org) leads educational backcountry trips in the Geyser Basin area for $350.

Denali National Park, AK
Explore the Alaska Range
Denali is three times the size of Yellowstone—but it has just 16 miles of trails. Master the art of bushwhacking here and you're ready for anything. Alaska Mountaineering School offers an inside edge on building off-trail exploration skills with its weeklong wilderness courses deep into the seldom visited area south of the Alaska Range, where giant glaciers spill from 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. After a short hop by bush plane, participants are prepped on self-supported travel in the trackless wilderness. Daily adventures up gravelly river bars and across tundra become increasingly ambitious as the group acquires skills at river crossing and navigation. The trip also features a climb up an unnamed peak or two. More than 20 hours of available daylight means leisurely evenings spent scanning for moose, grizzlies, and elusive wolves; or watching the play of low-angled sunlight across an incomprehensibly massive landscape of snowy peaks and deep-green valleys.

Information: 907-683-2294; www.nps.gov/dena
Backcountry travel is possible anytime between May and mid-September, but the mosquitoes are plague-like until July. Weeklong instructional hikes with Alaska Mountaineering School (907-733-1016; www.climbalaska.org) cost $1,050. The National Geographic Trails Illustrated map "Denali National Park and Preserve" ($10; 800-962-1643) provides a good overview, and you should pick up the appropriate USGS topo maps at any of the visitors centers before leaving the road.

Get all 20 National Parks adventures in the May 2003 issue of Adventure.

Online Extra
Forum: Park it Here
What's your ultimate National Park adventure? Share your story in our online forum.

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Action Guides to the Big 10 National Parks
The ten greatest U.S. national parks still have room for adventure—you just have to know where to find it.

Yellowstone's Secret-Keeper
What have you been missing in America's most iconic park? Photographer and guide Tom Murphy is glad to show you—just don't ask him how to get there.

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Jim Whittaker, Back on Earth
Forty years ago, Jim Whittaker, age 34, was chosen from a group of elite mountaineers to be the first American atop Everest. That twist of fate would open up a world of soaring successes, bitter failures, public fame, and personal tragedy. He wouldn't trade a day of it for anything.

By Michael Shnayerson

He's a big man still, nearly six and a half feet (2 meters) tall and broad-shouldered at 74, though his hair is now wispier and mostly white. At the fog-shrouded marina in Port Townsend, Washington, James "Big Jim" Whittaker looks like an old sea salt, and that he is: His steel-hulled, 54-foot sailing yacht, Impossible, where he likes to entertain visitors, is tied up at a nearby pier. But the license plate on his Chevy TrailBlazer tells the more important story. It reads "29028." On May 1, 1963, Whittaker became the first American to climb that many feet toward the heavens to plant a flag.

Whittaker came home to national headlines, a parade in his hometown of Seattle, and a Rose Garden tribute from President Kennedy. The American conquest of Mount Everest made the covers of Life and National Geographic (the Society was one of the trip's sponsors), and Whittaker was voted Man of the Year in Sports by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The reverberations of the Cuban missile crisis were still being felt, Cold War tensions remained high, and the race between America and the Soviet Union to put a man on the moon was under way. In that heated climate, America was ready for a new hero. With his lean good looks and modest manner, 34-year-old Whittaker stepped into the role effortlessly, an alpine Jimmy Stewart.

Whittaker's long, still-powerful legs barely fit under the polished wood table in Impossible's cozy mahogany-paneled den. This is his third boat named Impossible; during flush times the first was traded in for a larger version, which was sold off years later when Whittaker's finances crashed. For three years at the end of the 1990s—around the time that the mountain that made him famous was resurveyed at 29,035 feet (8,850 meters)—the current Impossible was home to him, his wife, Dianne, and their two young sons, Joss and Leif, as they sailed halfway around the world. A map on one wall traces the family's route from Port Townsend across the Pacific to Australia: one more challenge in a life built on taking chances. Whittaker writes in his autobiography, A Life on the Edge: "If you stick your neck out, whether it's by climbing mountains or speaking up for something you believe in, your odds of winning are at least fifty-fifty. If you take risks with preparation and care, you can increase those odds significantly in your favor. On the other hand, if you never stick your neck out, your odds of losing are pretty close to 100 percent."

At the life-defining moment he stood in the frozen netherworld of Everest's summit, gasping for air from his empty oxygen bottle, Big Jim Whittaker could not have guessed that this ascent was about to fling him into a world far beyond climbing. As Louis Reichardt, a neuro-biologist who later climbed K2 with him, puts it, "Along with Willi Unsoeld, Jim is far and away the most interesting of the American mountaineers, because he's done so much else."

Whittaker had been flattered, but unsurprised, to have received an invitation from Swiss-born climber Norman Dyhrenfurth in 1960 to join the team he was assembling for a first U.S. assault of Everest. Both Jim and his twin brother, Lou, had established reputations by their early 30s as two of the best climbers in the Pacific Northwest. Jim Whittaker had also made a name for himself as the general manager of a small but fast-growing Seattle co-op that sold climbing gear to members at a discount—Recreational Equipment, Inc., or REI.

"I'd never been to the Himalaya before," says Whittaker. "But I'd been to 20,320-foot-high McKinley. I'd trained hard, put 60 pounds of bricks in my backpack. I swam in Lake Sammamish in [winter] to build up to the cold we would encounter. I didn't know anyone who was in better shape." When the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, which was helping to fund the expedition, asked the climbers in the summer of 1962 if they'd be able to summit, most replied, "I hope so" or "I'm going to do my best." Whittaker's response: "Yeah, I will."

By the time the climb began in Nepal in February 1963, the American team had swelled to 19 members. Some were scientists or photographers or writers, but each man was fit, and every one hoped, if only privately, to reach the top himself. At the same time, all knew that just a handful, at best, would be allowed to make the final ascent, and that Dyhrenfurth would decide who they would be.

Whittaker was hardly the only team member who had never climbed a Himalayan peak: After George Mallory's three attempts in the early 1920s and a few other British efforts in the 1930s, Everest had been more or less left alone until 1952, when a Swiss group—among them a young Norman Dyhrenfurth—had tried and failed. After Edmund Hillary's spectacular success the next year, another Swiss team had topped out in 1956, but two subsequent Indian teams had been blown back within a few hundred feet (60 meters) of the summit. A Chinese team maintained that it had succeeded in 1960, but that claim is widely questioned; a quartet of inexperienced climbers, including three Americans, had reached 24,900 feet (7,589 meters) in 1962 and lived to tell the tale. And that was it.

Two of Dyhrenfurth's climbers, however, did have experience in the Himalaya, and that gave them a different perspective. Thomas Hornbein, an anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a Peace Corps director, felt that merely climbing in Hillary's footsteps was too modest a goal. Why not chart a new, untried route, the West Ridge, they argued. Dyhrenfurth praised their ambition but cautioned that his priority was getting an American to the top. That was what he owed his backers. And the surest way to the top was the South Col. Once that was accomplished, he said, he was all for taking on the West Ridge.

As the climbers made their way to Base Camp, the West Ridge debate began to divide them—Hornbein and Unsoeld going so far as to advocate dumping the South Col route, others agreeing with Dyhrenfurth. Whittaker, as it happened, was a South Col man. Hornbein, in his own account of the trip, Everest: The West Ridge, refers with apparent annoyance to the sight of Whittaker "polishing off his daily five dozen push-ups." As one of the strongest climbers, Whittaker was clearly influencing the debate and, as Hornbein and Unsoeld saw it, choosing the less adventurous route to the top.

Get the full story in the May 2003 issue of Adventure.

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My Year With Lewis and Clark
Two hundred years on, Lewis and Clark's expedition is more popular than ever. A careful reader of their million-word journals seeks to find out why—and discovers the creation myth of America.

By Anthony Brandt

By the end of their first month on the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark had begun to understand what they faced. In the second week, they had nearly lost their keelboat when the towrope broke and they turned on a sandbar sideways to the river, which almost swamped them. A week or so later the mast broke. Mosquitoes and ticks were already a plague, a savage wind had held up the Corps of Discovery until five o'clock one day, the river itself ran fast—too fast some days to row against—and it was full of driftwood and snags and sawyers, which are logs or sometimes whole trees stuck in the bottom, leaving the top end to "saw" in the current and catch the unwary. Yet it was all still a source of wonder. They discovered rocks with Indian pictographs and new species of plants, and on June 4, 1804, a nightingale sang for them all night long. They named the second creek they came to the next day Nightingale Creek. There were no nightingales in the New World. Clark was listening to a whippoorwill, perhaps. Or a myth.

I am the editor of a new abridgment of the expedition journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. I spent most of the last year on the project, and it was one of the most absorbing intellectual adventures of my life. The world these men edged into, laboring painfully up the swift, snag-ridden, dangerous Missouri at ten to twenty miles a day, was utterly new to them, and their written descriptions of it, and of the things that happened to them along the way, have a raw freshness that is nothing short of exhilarating. Yet they lived in a mental world that only partly overlaps our own. Their attitudes and their expectations belong to the early 1800s, and an almost exotic strangeness attends them. This was a world where the men preferred eating dogs to consuming the dried salmon that the Indians on the Columbia River sold them, a world where soldiers were punished with the lash, and where not only nightingales but giant ground sloths might be around the next bend.

Giant ground sloths, woolly mammoths, even perhaps mastodons. In his official instructions to Lewis, written about a year before the expedition departed in three boats on May 14, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson told him to look for—in addition to things we might expect, such as soil quality, mineral production, flora and fauna, and climate—"the remains or accounts" of such animals. A mastodon skeleton had been found not long before in upstate New York, near the Hudson River, and earlier in Kentucky at a place that quickly became known as Big Bone Lick: long, curved tusks weighing up to 180 pounds, "elephant" teeth of five pounds. They had generated a good deal of both public and scientific excitement. Lewis stopped to see the bones in Kentucky when he was taking the expedition's keelboat, which was built in Pittsburgh, down the Ohio. The first ground sloth bones had been found in what is now West Virginia in the 1790s and brought to Jefferson for identification. He thought the beast might have been a huge lion. The animal, extinct 10,000 years ago, still bears his name: Megalonyx jeffersoni.

An old theory about the structure of the natural world, a theory called the great chain of being—starting with God, followed by angels, and descending all the way to worms—still held force. According to Jefferson's interpretation of that theory, no animal ever became extinct. If it did, the chain would have a gap in it, it would break; and since its origin was divine, that was impossible. Out West, therefore, among the buffalo and the wolves, these other, more ancient animals might very well still exist.

Lewis and Clark did find some extraordinary bones. In September 1804, four months up the Missouri, on a ridge in what is now South Dakota, they found a fossilized backbone 45 feet (14 meters) long, "some teeth and ribs also connected," which Clark took to be the remains of an enormous fish. Clark says no more about it; he did not have Lewis's speculative mind. It was, we now know, a plesiosaur, an aquatic dinosaur. Terrible lizards, however, had no place in the great chain of being.

But what a thing to find the bones of a giant fish in the middle of those dry plains! Put yourself in their place, live with them for a year, and you cannot help but be struck with wonder. When they reached the West Coast in the winter of 1805, they heard about a whale having washed up onshore. They were camping on a tributary of the Columbia now called the Lewis and Clark River, and to reach the coast was a bit of a trek over rough terrain, and the weather was terrible, the worst they had ever seen—constant storms, endless rain. But they wanted to get to the whale before the Clatsop Indians stripped it bare, and Sacagawea, who had not yet seen the ocean and had certainly never seen a whale, insisted on going with the party that set out for the coast. Clark recorded her plea: "[S]he had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and now that that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard that she could not be permitted to see either." They took her along.

Get the full story in the May 2003 issue of Adventure.

Online Extra
Lewis and Clark Event Planner
These useful links will help you plan your own commemoration of Lewis and Clark's bold expedition into the uncharted West, 200 years ago.

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The Accidental Explorer's Guide to Patagonia
Poking around one of South America's emptiest quarters, Tim Cahill goes looking for a new favorite place—and for an answer to that eternal question: Was I the first?

I was on my way to my favorite place on Earth. I hadn't ever been there before and wasn't exactly sure where it was, but I knew, in the way a man knows these things, that we were drawing closer and that the place I found would be my new favorite place on Earth. Never mind the slight tug of airsickness.

The float plane was following the deep valley of a mud-choked river. It wheeled this way and that against glacier-clad spires glittering in the sun. The colors were intense in this corridor of ice: The river below ran over gold sandbanks that rose sharply to become grassy hillsides, bright green against the dazzle of the ice above. It was incredibly beautiful.

"Isn't this incredibly beautiful?" Eric Hertz shouted over the howl of the engine. He was so pumped up and so sincere that I just couldn't help myself.

"If you like this sort of thing," I said.

In fact, I love this sort of thing. I had an aviation map of the area open on my lap. Our plane had risen out of the lake called General Carrera here in Chile. We were in the lower portion of South America, at about 46º south latitude. The float plane was flying at about 2,500 feet (762 meters), under jagged icy peaks that rose to more than 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). The guy sitting beside me, Dave, a pilot himself and an aviation buff, pointed out the advisories stamped all over the map: "Relief Detail Unreliable." In other words, this area of Chilean Patagonia was so little known that no one could say precisely how high the mountains were.

Mark, our float plane's pilot, followed the Río Leones as it ascended into what is known as the Northern Ice Field. Combined with Patagonian glaciers just a bit to the south, in the Southern Ice Field, this area is sometimes called the "third pole." It carries a lot of frozen water, all of it cascading lickety-split down the mountains. There's a lot of geology happening here, and it's happening right in your face.

We topped a ridge, and an immense lake, Lago Leones, surrounded by mountains and ice, lay before us like a dream. The water was pea-soup green where it was shadowed by shards of wind-whipped mist and emerald green where slanting shafts of light fell on its surface this bright summer day early in December.

Mark put the plane down, helped off-load our camping gear and inflatable kayaks, then went back to pick up the rest of our crew. This was an "exploratory" trip mounted by Earth River Expeditions, the adventure travel company owned by Eric Hertz and his Chilean partner, Robert Currie. Some commercial clients—I count myself among them—prefer exploratories. Eric had come to find a new place to bring clients, and I was looking for my new favorite place on Earth. These weren't necessarily antagonistic ambitions.

Except that Eric thought we might find a place "where no other human being has ever been." Since it is generally impossible to prove a negative—no one has ever been here—this sort of claim is usually an exercise in what I call GCB, or gratuitous chest beating. Eric Hertz, however, is not a chest beater; he's simply enthusiastic and so obviously sincere that his fervor is contagious whether you agree with him or not. Over the years he's led clients, journalists, and celebrities to speak out about saving this bit of wilderness or that. The guy's heart is in the right place, and several months ago, when we began talking about a trip to Patagonia, I was swept up in the current of Eric's passion. He said he was looking for a discovery. Me? I'd settle for a new fave.

Get the full story in the May 2003 issue of Adventure.

Online Extra
Photo Gallery
Patagonia in living color: View amazing outtakes from photographer David McLain's journey with Contributing Editor Tim Cahill to the tip of South America for "The Accidental Explorer's Guide to Patagonia."

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Descending the Dragon
Explorer Jon Bowermaster calls in dispatches from his unpredictable, 800-mile (1,287-kilometer) kayak odyssey down the northern Vietnam coast.

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May 2003



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