Archive Page 2

Rite of Passage


“It’s rare. It’s quick. It has no track record,” my friend Marcus told me from the St. Luke’s emergency room in Duluth, Minnesota, on August 15. We were supposed to have dinner the previous week. When I didn’t hear from him, I knew something was not right. So I called.

“It’s very aggressive, Steph. I’m not going to have chemo. It’s not an option. The cancer started from inside, with small polyps on the colon, and moved to the liver. My liver is full of tumors.”

By September 13 Marcus was dead. The last time I saw him, he was sitting like a Buddha on a sleeping pad under the Norway pines outside the log cabin he built in the woods. Marcus loved to push around boulders and trim Minnesota pines into Japanese bonsais to create a Zen garden where he could read and think. Eighteen years older than me, Marcus was a brilliant, liberal theologian who enjoyed a dissenting opinion as long as it didn’t have anything to do with telling him how to paddle a canoe or live his life.

A rugged guy, Marcus didn’t have many personal mementos. I have nothing tangible other than the photo below to remember him by—not even his memorial service. Marcus’s family and friends are scattered across the country. His only son lives in Boston, his mother lives in California, his sisters are from St. Paul, many of his friends live in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but his closest buddies were a cluster of doctors, construction workers, and woodsmen from northern Minnesota. He wanted the memorial service, which he planned himself the weeks before he died, to be held in the town near the cabin he loved and considered home. To give everyone time to gather, his son set the service for November 12. By then, I was gone.

I’m not sure what kind of closure I’m expecting from watching the mailed DVD of his memorial service, but I know that being absent from the real thing has been much harder than expected.

Missing the service makes me think about ritual. A synonym for the word funeral is “laying to rest,” which makes a lot of sense. Without that last communal goodbye, to share a laugh and a memory with people who loved Marcus, the world just moves on as if he didn’t exist. I guess that’s why I wrote this post—to use it as a place holder. It’s an attempt to let Marcus rest, but also to keep him alive.



Twin Peaks at the ATWS 2012 Summit

The sun is high, the snow is bright, and we’re in a mad dash with a crush of teenaged ski racers to catch an 8 a.m. ride on the Matterhorn Express. Rock skis tangle as their owners, wearing stretchy Lycra, run toward the red car, hell-bent on getting up the mountain first. We squeeze in before the doors close behind us and the excitement builds as the gondola slowly floats up past the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn! To our right, white clouds swirl around Europe’s most famous peak, its iconic lines and sheer face at once elegant and deadly. It’s a thrill to see, but I’m thrilled I’m not a good enough mountaineer to feel pressure to climb it. Instead, I focus on the peak to the left, the 13,661-foot Breithorn. With a hook-nosed summit, its shape resembles an eagle. From this vantage point the angle of the slope is intimidating. But our morning’s objective is to summit it by noon.

We exit the gondola at roughly 12,000 feet and I rope in next to a Scottish explorer, a Swiss mountain guide, a Nepali Sherpa, a few fellow Americans, and our host from Zermatt. Our mission is to have a good time and get down alive.

At around noon, after a change into crampons and a thigh-burning climb, we summit. As we bask in the sunshine and glory of the jagged peaks of Switzerland, Italy, and France, I’m thinking about the week ahead. Here we are, in Switzerland, a bunch of strangers from around the globe attending the 2012 Adventure Travel World Summit, but we’re undeniably bound together to achieve a common goal, whether it’s climbing a peak or taking adventure travel to a higher level. If only we could all be like the Swiss, our hosts for the week. Their trains run on time (down to the second), they put a premium on sustainability and environmental protection, and they feel no guilt while indulging in wine, fondue, and the world’s finest chocolate.

Real Colombia


For the past weeks I’ve been traveling through Colombia reporting a story for Outside magazine. As a travel writer, the topic that fascinates me most is how a country with a warring, violent past can transcend its history.  While Colombia is far from perfect, the people here are tired of living in a murky shadow world and are making tremendous progress in trying to move beyond the dark trail of violence left behind by Pablo Escobar, FARC, ELN, the paramilitary, and all other terrorists that have used power to intimidate, exploit, and extort anyone who gets in their way. The proof of Colombia’s desire for real change is everywhere, from Medllin’s immaculate Metrocable, a public gondola that allows people who live in the hillside barrios to safely and efficiently work in the city, to eco tour lodge operators who are working with locals to promise tranquil vacations on the Pacific coast. It’s an exciting time to be in Colombia. Stay tuned for my upcoming story in Outside, then visit this vast, complex country for yourself.

Dinner with The Honorable Chief Joseph Mayuni

The Honorable Chief Joseph Mayune

I recently returned from Namibia, where I traveled with government officials, private business owners, and representatives from the World Wildlife Fund who have been working together with local communities to create a paradigm shift in how each community interacts with wildlife. The resulting “Communal Conservancy” program has been a tremendous succes.  (Visit “Namibia’s Quiet Wildlife Revolution,” a story I wrote for for more details.) As of today, 42 percent of Namibia is under conservation management, one of the reasons it is the only country in the world where black rhino, elephants, giraffe, and lions are increasing in numbers and range.

Bwabwata National Park

After a game drive in Bwabwata National Park in Namibia’s swampy Caprivi region, I was lucky to eat dinner with the Honorable Chief Joseph Mayuni, the leader of the Mafwe people. We were at Susuwe Island Lodge, a private safari concession on the bank of the Kwando River, which donates $40 Namibian (US $5) to Chief Mayuni’s community for each guest that stays at the lodge. It’s not a fortune, but it’s a start to a working partnership and a better life for the local people. When I asked Chief Mayuni at what moment he realized the value of conservation, this is what he told me:

Every idea that we see today was a beginning point. It started from somewhere. I was observing the problem between people and wildlife. There was no return or benefit. Animals would destroy peoples’ crops. Because of these problems people began to say ‘There’s no point in looking after wildlife. Let’s kill them.’ My personal observation was that people were dying and we were losing wildlife. Me and my community were losing double. I thought, how best can wildlife live together with my people?

Fortunately around that time the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) came to our area. I clung onto them and gave them the support they needed. It was very difficult at the beginning because the community went against me. They asked, ‘Why are we introducing the concept of conserving?’

“If we conserve the wildlife we create opportunity for tourism business,” I told them. “There will be benefits coming to us who are losing crops and livestock.” With a few meetings we started employing community game guards, who worked on a voluntary basis and were very committed.

After that I sat down to think about how best can we teach the community good management of wildlife. Finally we established this lodge. Then I used the payment I was getting to start compensating my community when it came to livestock and hyenas. What I had to pay was 500 Namibian ($61 U.S.) for livestock killed. That shifted the mindset of my community that they can benefit from good management of wildlife.

Bwabwata National Park

But we all know what we say with oil: Somehow you find a drip from the top, bottom, or in-between. Some members still go around and do the poaching. Still poachers were getting information from a few individuals involved in the system.

It was difficult to know who was poaching and we realized there was a need to find the sources. These sources were coming from our own community. We started confiscating rifles. When all these activities were done and poaching was reduced, I sat aside and a question came to my mind—where can we translocate species? Why don’t we zone our area and reserve a place for tourism? The only place to reserve was the flat plane along the Kwando River. To make an example, I was the first person to move from the river. Then one by one they all moved. That’s the beginning of the whole idea. That’s how we started. It was not an easy process.

Noise Free, Visually Enhanced

Last Saturday my friend Jose Saldana, who was passing through town on his way to Yosemite, hiked with me up to the saddle of Cathedral Rock near Sedona. We arrived right around sunset to catch the shadows playing off the red formations. Engrossed in our mission, I gave no thought to the precipitous four-mile hike back to the parking lot in the dark. I also gave no thought to the fact that Jose is deaf. But he’s a photographer, a filmmaker, and a mountain climber who has summitted Mount Adams, climbed 12 Colorado Fourteeners, and trekked in the Italian Alps, so I figured he’s taken a few night hikes before. If Jose was freaked out on the way back to the car, he didn’t show it—at one point he was hiking so fast that I had to run to keep up, tripping over rocks and misjudged space.

Jose isn’t completely deaf. He can hear airplanes, a door slam, a sneeze, the rev of a motorcycle, and deep bass. But he’s never heard the crash of a wave, the sound of the wind in the trees, or music. I assumed that if Jose could, he would choose a life of sound over a life of silence. But when I asked him—via scribbles on legal pad, since my sign-language skills are nearly non-existent—his answer was no.

“I feel peace! I have no annoying noises,” he told me. “And a deaf is born sensitive to vibrations—if you put your foot on the ground I can feel it. We’re also highly visual.”

That explains Jose’s stealth navigation in the dark. It also explains this photo he took from Cathedral Rock.

Photo by Jose Saldana

The Big Island

I’ve spent very little time in Manhattan. As a lover of wilderness and a bit of an introvert, I’ve always been intimidated by the thought of a 34-square-mile island that’s home to 1.5 million people, which is approximately the same number of people who live in the entire state of New Mexico. Plus, I’m far more comfortable in ski boots than I am in stilettos. But the more I visit New York, the more I fall in love with its beautifully orchestrated chaos.

Last week when I was in the city to film a travel segment with Outside Television, the Kwanzan cherry trees were blooming in Central Park, daffodils and crocuses lined Park Avenue, and the Brooklyn Bridge sparkled under a crescent moon. I ate Indian, Turkish, Latin, Italian, Mexican and Latin-Indio food, saw Dawn Kasper’s Nomadic Studio Practice Experience at the Whitney Biennial, and bumped into a friend on the street who I hadn’t seen in years. He showed me a secret spot where we could slip through a window and watch people hustle like ants in Grand Central Station four stories below. The only missing element was the Frank Sinatra soundtrack. But even without the music I felt the magic and, instead of fearfully lingering around on the fringes, I finally let Manhattan pull me in.


Testing, Testing…

Testing, Testing...

I’ve tried quite a few skis, poles, boots, snowshoes, kayaks, jackets, helmets, headlamps, tents, hiking boots, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, water purifiers, cameras, dresses, running shoes, outerwear, underwear, and anything else that qualifies as “gear” since I started as an intern at Outside magazine in 1995. Sometimes it can get overwhelming, especially during testing season—like now, when I’m testing upwards of 60 women’s jackets to find the perfect fit for the 2012 Winter Buyer’s Guide. The fact is, most of these jackets are so well made that they will keep me warm, dry, and happy in virtually any weather. It’s the intangible qualities—the look, the feel, the personality—that give some of them an edge. Yesterday, when I became way too overwhelmed by the sheer volume and über-tech of it all, I took out my old standbys, a pair of wooden Iverson snowshoes I won in a snowshoe race about 15 years ago. These hand-crafted beauties remind me of everything I love about the best gear—simplicity, ease of use, elegance, and practical function. Wearing my Iversons while trudging up the mountain in the freshly fallen snow reminded me that, ultimately, it’s not about the gear. It’s where it takes you.