Published: April/May 2009
Ten Years of Adventure: 1999-2009
Haven’t you heard? It’s our birthday! To celebrate, we’re revisiting some of our favorite stories and characters from a very busy decade.
Text by Christian DeBenedetti
1. Second Look: The Afghanistan Decade

Sebastian Junger returns to Afghanistan, the least hospitable—and most important—place on Earth.
ADVENTURE has searched borderlands near Pakistan for Osama bin Laden and shadowed writer Rory Stewart’s efforts to preserve the culture of old Kabul. But the most popular—and in light of 9/11, prophetic—Afghanistan story we’ve published was Sebastian Junger’s profile of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated by al Qaeda just two days before the Twin Towers fell. Junger, who has frequently returned to Afghanistan, talks about how history might have run a different course had Massoud lived. Read the interview >>

Next: Whale warriors, Conrad Anker on Mallory's Everest, Steve Fossett, and more.

Read more in the April/May 2009 issue of ADVENTURE, on newsstands April 21.
2. Update: The Whale Warriors
He Who Hunts the Hunters

"‘Our intention is to stop the criminal whaling,’ [Paul] Watson said. ‘We are not a protest organization. We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don’t wave banners. We intervene.’"—"The Whale Warriors," by Peter Heller, ADVENTURE May 2006

Paul Watson has become an eco-celebrity in the past three years, thanks to the television series Whale Wars, filmed during his crew’s 2007–08 campaign in the Southern Ocean. As of this year, though, the grizzled activist and his motley, semitrained band of antiwhaling diehards could still be found giving chase to some of the same Japanese whaling ships they targeted in 2006. In recent months Watson’s notorious volleys of butyric acid (the rotten butter the guerrilla sailors use instead of cannonballs) have been returned: fire hoses—which lightly injured a crew member—and, according to Watson, both concussion grenades and a military-grade sound gun that can cause deafness and disrupt digestion. Watson’s not giving up. "I will not allow them to kill a whale while we’re here, and they know that," Watson told reporters after the latest salvo. "I’ll literally rip their harpoon off their deck if I have to." It may come to that: Japan has publicly announced its intention to harvest 985 whales this year alone.

3. Enduring Mystery: Everest’s Restless Ghost
George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine's

"With the sole exception of Amelia Earhart in 1937, the vanishing of no explorer in the 20th century has generated anything like the romantic speculation surrounding George Leigh Mallory’s."—"Out of Thin Air," by David Roberts, ADVENTURE Fall 1999

The uncertainty over whether famed British alpinist George Mallory and his novice companion, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, were the first to summit Mount Everest has vexed climbers and historians for more than eight decades. What is known is that the pair were spotted at an altitude of at least 28,000 feet around noon on June 8, 1924, just a thousand feet from the top. Then clouds swallowed the deadly peak. The two men were never seen alive again.

On May 1, 1999, a group that included mountaineer Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s body, facedown as if in self-arrest in a scree field some 2,000 feet below the summit. Affixed to his torso—eerily well preserved, and alabaster white—was a sheared-off rope, indicating that he and Irvine had been roped up until their demise. Irvine’s remains were nowhere to be found. The discovery provided tantalizing clues that only deepened the mystery. Mallory’s tinted mountaineering goggles were tucked in a pocket. Had he put them there in the dark, or merely when the clouds arrived? His watch was frozen near two o’clock, but was it a.m. or p.m.? Had they conquered Everest only to succumb to an avalanche or fall on the way back down?

Most experts agree it’s unlikely that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Anker—who returned to the mountain in 2007 (with British filmmaker Anthony Geffen in tow) to free climb the Second Step, the crux of Mallory’s intended path—pegs the route’s difficulty at 5.10, probably well beyond Mallory’s technical capabilities. Still, he allows for the slim possibility that the pair, outfitted in worsted wool jackets and leather boots but driven by Mallory’s death-wish-like obsession, could have succeeded. Some hope that finding Mallory’s missing Kodak Vest Pocket camera might put the controversy to rest. Six-time summiter Ed Viesturs, however, calls the Mallory question "Irrelevant. It would have been a fairly phenomenal achievement, but they didn’t survive the descent—that’s the most critical part of any climb."

The arguments should only grow louder this year with the appearance of best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer’s book Paths of Glory (which imagines a Mallory triumph) and the release of Geffen’s biopic The Wildest Dream. Anker believes the absence of closure might even be a good thing. After all, he says, "We need a little mystery in our lives."

4. Update: Steve Fossett Vanishes

Near the end of 2008, one year after aviator Steve Fossett’s Bellanca Super Decathlon disappeared in the Nevada desert ("The Vanishing," ADVENTURE December/January 2008), a local hiker stumbled upon $1,005 in cash and the pilot’s license of the man who’d broken more than a hundred world records. The site, at 10,000 feet near Mammoth Lakes, California, was miles from where authorities had been searching. Two days later an aerial rescue team found Fossett’s missing plane, or what was left of it; he appeared to have flown straight into the mountainside, which would have killed the adventurer instantly.

5. Catching Up: Aron Ralston
The Man With the Titaniun Arm

"Within the first hour, [Ralston] had made a mental list of possible courses of action: He could wait for rescue; he could chip at the rock to free his hand; he could somehow move the rock off his hand; or he could amputate his hand." —"One Way Out," by Laurence Gonzales, ADVENTURE August 2003

"Within the first hour, [Ralston] had made a mental list of possible courses of action: He could wait for rescue; he could chip at the rock to free his hand; he could somehow move the rock off his hand; or he could amputate his hand."—"One Way Out," by Laurence Gonzales, ADVENTURE August 2003. Almost from the moment he emerged from a Utah canyon minus his right hand, Aron Ralston has been on the go. "It’s surreal," he says of his enduring notoriety. After a splashy media tour in 2003 and 2004—Letterman, Dateline, Howard Stern—he wrote a best-selling book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. In 2005 he became the first person to solo all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in midwinter, then embarked on a frenetic expedition schedule: climbing the three highest peaks in South America; scaling 20,320-foot Denali (via the notoriously deadly Orient Express Route, and followed by a ski descent); rafting Cataract, Desolation, and the Grand Canyons; and making ascents of big walls in Yosemite. "I climbed more in 2007 than in my entire life until that point," said Ralston, 33, who remains an extremely popular Internet presence. In June Ralston will head up Kilimanjaro with family members, and he’s considering taking on the big one—Everest—in 2010 with his sometime expedition partner Eric Larsen.

6. Update: Hiding From Nazis in Caves

"Death stalked each step," Esther [Stermer] wrote of that autumn. "But we were not surrendering to this fate.… Our family in particular would not let the Germans have their way easily. We had vigor, ingenuity, and determination to survive…. But where…? Clearly, there was no place left on the Earth for us."—"Off the Face of the Earth," by Peter Lane Taylor, ADVENTURE June/July 2004

The astonishing tale of a family of Jews who escaped the Gestapo during the Holocaust, hiding in a Ukrainian cave for 344 days, caused an international media sensation. All of the Stermer family members in the story are alive; most of them still reside in their adopted home city of Montreal. Later this summer, spelunker Chris Nicola, who first discovered evidence of their underground sanctuary, will join with a documentary team to take four survivors—Shulim Stermer, Shlomo Stermer, Shunkale Hochman, and Pepkale Blitzer—back to Ukraine to descend into Priest’s Grotto once again. "I’m not a youngster—I’m 88," says Shulim Stermer, who, on an earlier trip there, paid for a sheep he had stolen from a local farmer while hiding out. "Still, I would love to go in. I was a good caver."

7. Catching Up: Tanya Streeter Depth Charger

Following the historic week in 2001 when Tanya Streeter left the world gasping by setting two records (ADVENTURE September/October 2001), the diver with a six-minute breath-holding capacity continued to plunge deeper. In August 2002 she grasped a weighted sled and plummeted 525 feet in less than ten seconds. Returning to the surface without mechanical assistance three minutes and 26 seconds later, she attained the "no limits" world record, besting marks for both men and women and earning a spot on a Turks and Caicos postage stamp. She hosted a popular series of ocean-themed television specials, then retired to raise a family in 2006. "Being away from competition has made me realize that what I was really after was challenge," she says. "I have a six-month-old challenge on my hands right now."

8. Update the Ballard Chronicles

"[Robert] Ballard bet everything on his theory. The good news was that it would take him only six days to search the hundred-square-mile box. The bad news was that there wouldn’t be time to try again if Titanic didn’t show. And if something broke, the show was over."—"Ballard Surfacing," by Laurence Gonzales, ADVENTURE Spring 1999

As it turned out, making the greatest shipwreck find of all time was just the beginning for Robert Ballard. In May 2002 he led his crew and an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to an obscure quadrant of Melanesia’s Solomon Islands. There he found the wreckage of the PT-109, John F. Kennedy’s 80-foot patrol craft, sliced in half and sunk on a moonless night in 1943 by a Japanese destroyer. The attack sent the future president on a harrowing swim to the relative safety of a deserted island. Between 2003 and 2007 Ballard led a series of expeditions to the oxygen-free depths of the Black Sea, where he found an exquisitely preserved, 1,500-year-old Byzantine ship complete with a 33-foot mast and rope rigging. "That never, ever, ever happens on an ancient shipwreck," he says. "That was the perfect ship you could only dream of." He also surveyed what he and other researchers believe is evidence of human habitation destroyed by an ancient deluge—in other words, events that might have inspired the biblical tale of Noah.

Ballard, a former naval commander and intelligence officer, seems to have moved on from the sort of Cold War covert ops that led him to Titanic. (Though can you ever be certain with a guy whose cover was really deep?) The Black Sea, where he’s been spending a great deal of time, is nothing if not strategically located in today’s geopolitical landscape. "It will be interesting to see if we go back into a cold war with Russia," is all the former spook will say. "Who knows what’s going to happen in the future?"

9. Man vs. Nature: When Animals Attacked
Contributing Editor Paul Kvinta on ten years of interspecies conflict.

For the better part of a decade this magazine has dispatched me far and wide to cover a strange and rapidly increasing phenomenon that ecologists call "human-animal conflict." No, it’s not a joke. In fact, HAC is probably a better barometer of the planet’s health than global warming, though it doesn’t receive the same attention or hand-wringing. Most of the media just can’t seem to get beyond the lurid veneer of the problem, and I’ll admit, during my reporting I’ve definitely seen Team Homo Sapiens get smacked around a little. Take the family of rice farmers in India who hid under a bed while 40 rampaging elephants flattened their village. Or the ten-year-old boy in Tanzania who had his arm chewed off by hungry lions. I’ve witnessed livestock-thieving snow leopards in the Himalaya and hell-raising sea lions in the Pacific Northwest that destroyed docks and sank fishing boats while sabotaging a Chinook spring migration.

The animals, to be sure, have won a few skirmishes. But the war? Not so much.

Let’s be honest. Over the past several years, the chances of your grandchildren actually seeing any of the animals represented in The Lion King outside of a zoo have fallen from slim to near zilch. Today, there are only about 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. At best there are 16,000 rhinos, 7,000 snow leopards, 4,000 tigers, and 1,600 pandas. The numbers of certain subspecies are even more pitiful. Four hundred Sumatran tigers? Three hundred Cross River gorillas? There are at best four, count ’em, four northern white rhinos left in the wild.

Sure, once in a very blue moon, researchers stumble upon a previously unknown animal population (like the incredible discovery last August of 125,000 western lowland gorillas in Congo), or a very wealthy nation like the United States will successfully reintroduce an apex predator, like the gray wolf. But for the most part we’re witnessing an unfolding disaster, a function of rapidly dwindling habitat and an exploding human population, the two primary factors in human-animal conflict. About 50 percent of the Earth’s surface today remains in a wild or semi-wild state, and that percentage is shrinking fast. Meanwhile, the current human population of 6.75 billion is expected to top nine billion by 2040. We’ll need to find the farmland equivalent of about half an Amazon Basin just to feed those newcomers.

So despite the overwhelming odds against it, here’s what I want to see happen over the next decade: I want the animals to win a battle. Just once.

Is this even possible, you ask? And what might that win actually look like? Would the animals employ gorilla tactics? Would elephants in caves issue grainy videotape messages to Animal Planet railing against clear-cuts and quoting verses from The Jungle Book? Would real estate developers live in fear of high-altitude bombing runs involving terrifying amounts of guano? Things could get ugly fast.

Let me be perfectly clear: I do not wish this on my fellow humans.

What I do wish is that governments would recognize human-animal conflict as a complex, worldwide environmental problem that’s at least as important as climate change. If you’ll forgive my extreme optimism, I wish they would address the cycle that leads to this conflict, focusing on lowering birthrates and providing economic opportunities so that the poorest aren’t forced to pursue slash-and-burn agriculture, or livestock overgrazing, or charcoal production, or bush meat hunting. And I wish the world’s urban middle classes would not perpetuate the problem by buying unsustainable forest products. Only then will wildlife stop being homeless, hungry, and homicidal. And that would be a win for everyone.

10. Update: Gustave, the Killer Crocodile

"Gustave’s exact victim count is unknown and unverifiable.... But in every cluster of attacks [that’s been] investigated, witnesses have described the same enormous croc with a distinctive scar on top of its head."—"Have You Seen This Croc?" by Michael McRae ADVENTURE March 2005

Gustave may be the only reptile with his own Wikipedia entry. At 20-plus feet and 2,000 pounds, Burundi’s killer croc has proved surprisingly elusive, and notorious—his tale is the most popular story ever posted on ADVENTURE’s website (read it here). And as of earlier this year, Gustave was still alive, at large, and adding to a victim list believed to be more than a hundred names long. At least one relatively recent death has been credibly pinned on the giant Nile crocodile, according to local naturalist Patrice Faye, who says Gustave was spotted not long ago in the waters of Burundi’s Lake Tanganyika. "He’s in excellent health," Faye reports. The estimated 65-year-old man-eater also achieved immortality on celluloid: In 2007 Gustave’s story inspired the big-screen horror film Primeval.

11. Catching Up: Michael Fay
Megafauna Man

"The journey would take him 15 months, during which he machete-hacked through vines and slogged across enormous swamps, braving equatorial heat, torrential rains, and charging elephants. It was a trip both epic and reckless, admirable and a bit mad."—"The Uncharted World of Michael Fay," by Michael Shnayerson, ADVENTURE July/August 2001

He went into the African jungle to document its bounty for science. He came out a different man. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and biologist J. Michael Fay embarked on a journey through some of Africa’s densest unmapped terrain starting in September 1999. (The expedition was called the Megatransect.) With little more than a pair of shorts, a small pack, and reams of empty notebooks, Fay, photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols, and a team of porters set out from Bomassa, Republic of Congo, and cut a westward swath to the coast of Gabon. When he emerged from the jungle more than a year later, Fay had bushwhacked through 2,000 miles of seemingly impenetrable territory and endured innumerable trials: a porter mutiny; malaria; encounters with pythons and vipers; and a 50-mile-wide section of jungle he dubbed the Green Abyss because it took ten weeks to cross.

Following the Megatransect, Fay returned to the United States to lecture and publish, but he was so conditioned to camping out that he preferred to spend nights in a sleeping bag at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. Soon enough, Africa called him back. He launched an exhaustive aerial survey (inevitably nicknamed the Megaflyover) of the same jungles he’d walked through. On New Year’s Eve 2002, Fay survived a near-fatal elephant attack in Gabon, gored 14 times by an enraged female’s 16-inch tusks. Recently, he’s undertaken major surveys of vanishing species: California’s redwoods and Chad’s elephants—projects conducted, of course, on foot.

12. Update: Survivor’s Mark Burnett

"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 most of the multimillion-dollar cost of casting and filming the show in Borneo, and for Burnett, who has never produced a network show before. . . ."—"Master of the Ego Challenge," by Gretchen Reynolds, ADVENTURE July/August 2000

It seems almost silly at this point—as the 18th season of Survivor, shot in the Brazilian highlands, unfolds weekly—to note that the show has done pretty well for itself. But when ADVENTURE first profiled its creator, Mark Burnett, he wasn’t as certain about his chances of outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting the entire television industry as he seemed. "I had no idea it would go beyond the first season," he admits today. "We hoped it would break even." Burnett has done more than survive; he’s become the godfather of reality TV, whose love-’em-or-hate-’em productions include The Apprentice, Rock Star, and the forthcoming Toughest Cowboy.

13. Update: The Cure

"The truth is, I’m petrified. But with shamanism—and with the drinking of ayahuasca in particular—I’ve learned that, for me, the worse the experience, the better the payoff."—"Hell and Back," by Kira Salak, ADVENTURE March 2006

Even though contributing editor Salak has voyaged down the Niger River and deep into Congo, it was an encounter in Peru with the herbal potion ayahuasca (Quechua for "vine of the soul") that transported her to another realm. Adherents claim ayahuasca frees the mind and vanquishes psychic ailments by realigning one’s essence with the cosmos. Others (including, ahem, the DEA) note ayahuasca’s likeness to LSD. Salak was initially tormented by a flood of ghoulish hallucinations, unable to do much but scream, vomit, and writhe in agony. But with help from a shaman who guided her through a series of visions—including apparitions of herself at various life stages and even a manifestation of God—she was cured of her crippling, lifelong depression. In the years since, Salak says, dozens of readers have shared tales of similar recoveries. "I have tremendous gratitude to ayahuasca for giving me my life back," she says.