Worst-case scenarios
(Geoff Kern)

Let the Bad Times Roll

Adventure, big and small, is all about risk. The risk that things may go terribly wrong. That danger will finally cut off your credit and hit you with a hefty bill. That luck will flee the scene as the dark tide rises. In the tales of calamity that follow, our 13 unlucky writers hold forth on their personal odysseys into the land of nightmares.

Worst-case scenarios

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OVER THE YEARS, having read hundreds of adventure stories, interviewed many wilderness survivors, and experienced my own near misses with waterfalls, avalanche chutes, and venomous snakes, I’ve delineated a few major reasons why things go wrong out there: (1) Hubris. The ancient Greeks knew this as insolence toward the gods. I call it the “Dude, I can handle this, no problem” problem. (2) Ignorance. Some people should simply stay home until they know better. (3) Treachery. Rare, usually found only on high-stakes expeditions, but disastrous when it occurs. Examples: arsenic in the coffee, abandonment on ice floes, cannibalization of expedition mates for nutrients. (4) Shit happens. One of the essays that follows is a fine tale about human feces literally falling from the sky, which goes to show that some events are impossible to predict. (5) Miscalculating the risk. I find this last reason most interesting, containing as it does complex and ambiguous human motives. Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, famously said that the whole point of an expedition is to avoid adventures, which are the result of poor planning. But Amundsen, who was a mechanistic, plodding kind of guy, had it wrong. I believe that some of us—many of us, maybe even all of us—head into the wild secretly wishing for things to go wrong. We’re all seeking a worst moment—up to a point.

Think of the great stories you’ve heard. No one remembers much about Amundsen’s trip to the pole, except that he arrived with icy efficiency and, as carefully planned, his team ate their sled dogs on scheduled days during the return. In contrast, what helped immortalize Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance is that he failed in his goal. His genius lay in his skill at escape.

Likewise Livingstone. No one in Victorian England hankered to hear the mundane details of his endless slogs—lasting up to four years—across Africa. Rather, the doctor dined out in London (and raised scads of money) by recounting how a charging lion shook him like a rat in its teeth—this because he’d stupidly approached the hiding beast after wounding it. Or take Lewis and Clark: In two years and four months, they safely traversed about 8,000 miles of the American West, but what we recall best from their countless journal pages are the mishaps: when grizzly bears kept coming despite fusillades of bullets; that night along the Two Medicine River when the Blackfeet attacked. The misadventure is the story.

Granted, it’s doubtful any of us will embark on such epic trips, but we all want stories to tell. What makes a good adventure tale is the unexpected. Most of us are not Amundsens, prepared for the tiniest eventuality. Rather, we place ourselves in spots where the unexpected can ambush us. We’ve all had this conversation: “Carry a compass, map, and matches? Oh, come on, we’re not going to get lost on this little trail.”

On a subconscious level, we need these mishaps. We understand that they pack powerful medicine. They’re antidotes to the quiet desperation of modern life, reminding us that we—as individuals, as a species—are survivors, showing us how truly extraordinary it is what humans can endure, how much we can outwit, outflank, or, with clenched teeth, simply withstand.

We need to know that, lifted out of our bubble-wrapped lives, we aren’t the delicate, ineffectual creatures that governmental institutions and toilet-tissue ads would have us believe. Sometimes we have to set out—presumably innocent of our interior motives—and go have a really bad time.

Peter Stark’s book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival will be published in March 2014 by Ecco.

Narc Passage

Warning: Convicts in mirror are closer than they appear

Worst Moments in the World Outside

Worst Moments in the World Outside

I AM OVER SIX FEET TALL, and my first love and co-conspirator was almost seven feet tall. I mention this because, in the context of danger, size matters. In 1971 and ’72, we hitchhiked through Europe as if in a security bubble. We saw great art and viewed the landscape. Our backpacks remained unstolen; the average European gave us a wide berth. In addition to being extra-tall, we were Marxist, or, rather, he was Marxist and I was the fellow traveler. He was always trying to make contact with the working class but was too intimidating to succeed.

When we got back to the States, the revolution, such as it was, seemed to be passing us by. It was August, sunny and hot, and we were on a trip from Iowa to Wyoming by way of the scenic wonders of South Dakota. We were doing 73 with the windows down and chatting about the labor theory of value. Two hitchhikers appeared. My companion slowed down to pick them up, since we’d gotten rides so many times in Europe.

They ran to the car. They were wearing black and did not look like respectable members of the working class but, rather, charter members of the lumpen proletariat. They got in back—the tall, skinny one behind me, the shorter, heavier one behind my friend. We began talking; it turned out they were just out of the state penitentiary, where they’d served time for drug-related offenses. This was not, on the face of it, a negative. Theoretically, they had something to teach us about aspects of the revolution that we were less familiar with, but we didn’t overhear them making political plans, only talking in low voices about old associates.

My friend and I exchanged a glance. As he turned off I-90 toward the Badlands, I pulled down my sun visor, angling its mirror so I could see the hands and face of the guy behind me. His face was animated. In his hands was a knife. I angled the visor toward the other fellow’s hands. He had a knife, also. I tried to communicate this to my friend by means of gestures, but he was busy drawing them out about their prison experiences.

As we entered the Badlands, we saw that they were truly bad, from our point of view: desolate, beautiful, strange, and isolated, one cliff face and jutting butte after another, in wildly striated and colorful layers. Why were we taking ex-cons with knives into the Badlands, anyway? Well, because we felt we owed them the benefit of the doubt, and also because, since we had talked about how we were headed for the Badlands, we didn’t want to seem to be prejudiced or modifying our trip out of fear.

Beyond that first impression, I don’t remember the Badlands, but I remember perfectly how graceful and slender the skinny guy’s hands looked as he played with that knife. My friend kept talking in a relaxed, friendly manner, but he drove faster and faster. Pretty soon, the colorful rock faces were zipping by, and by late afternoon we were back on the highway, doing 85. As Marxists, we gave no thought to stopping and kicking them out. As big, tall people, we gave no thought to asserting ourselves. We drove. Evening drew on. We approached Rapid City.

“Say,” said the shorter guy, “so-and-so lives here. He’d put us up for the night.”

“I don’t know—” said the skinny guy, but my friend, ever helpful, crossed two lanes and the apron of the exit ramp, bouncing the Chevy over the curb. We paused at the stop sign and whipped around a corner into a Howard Johnson’s. “Need some money?” said my friend. “You could eat here.”

The guys sat quietly, not moving. I watched their hands. Finally, the short one said, “Yeah. We do need some money.” My friend emptied his pockets. He had about 30 dollars, all our money. It’s what they would have gotten if they’d killed us.

As we drove away, we waved. We drove fast, in case they thought to pull out their six-guns and drill us from afar.

Scared Sockless

Stupefied and frozen in a hornet’s nest of hot lead

THERE I WAS, STANDING BAREFOOT in a field of fire with my socks and boots in my hands, obstinately refusing to run for cover until I had put my socks on. Jim was yelling something, but the machine guns kept drowning him out. Then came a brief lull, and I heard his voice loud and clear.

“Jon, fuck the socks! Run!

It was the spring of 1983. Photographer Jim Nachtwey and I had teamed up to make one of the first trips inside Nicaragua with the CIA-backed contra guerrillas, who were fighting against the left-wing Sandinista regime. I was 26, and I’d never been under fire before. We had just spent an uneventful week with a contra platoon on an intelligence-gathering mission in the hills of northern Nicaragua. We moved around by night and, by day, hid and catnapped in thickets outside villages where the leader of our band, a tall, gangly, mustached man called “the Sparrow,” rendezvoused with peasant collaborators.

Before we set out one evening, the Sparrow told us that at dawn we would reach a road where a Sandinista military convoy was expected to appear. He intended to ambush it. That night it rained torrentially, turning the ground to a mass of slick mud, and in the darkness I fell repeatedly. Before long I was completely covered in mud, and both my trouser legs had ripped all the way up to the crotch. They hung like a split skirt, and I felt miserable and ridiculous.

When we reached the road, the contras fanned out on a bluff, taking up ambush positions. The sky was just beginning to turn blue-gray. Everyone whispered and moved very softly.

I began changing out of my wet and ruined clothes. I took off my boots and socks and had just put on my spare trousers when a terrifying noise erupted. I looked up and, directly above my head, saw red tracer fire sweeping through the trees. It took me a moment to comprehend that we were being ambushed and that everyone around me had vanished. Getting ambushed is a shocking occurrence. When you’re with people lying in wait, you have a sense of immunity to harm. But that was all turned around in a deadly second.

I finally spotted Jim and the others hiding in a shallow trench nearby, urgently motioning me to run and take cover with them. These instructions bewildered me; I still hadn’t put on my socks, and I was determined to do so. So I yelled, “But my socks!” In that moment I learned a lesson that’s served me well ever since: War, in all its manifestations, is essentially about fear—your own fear, collective fear, and how you handle that fear. Nobody knows until they’ve been under fire how they’re going to react. In my case, the sock fixation was a form of shock.

Jim shouted something back, but I couldn’t hear him over the gunfire. “What?” I said. He yelled back, but his voice was again drowned out. This exchange went on for what seemed like a long time, until I finally understood him telling me to run. I ran, barefoot, joining Jim and the others in the trench. When I got there, I realized that I’d brought my socks but left my boots behind. Jim retrieved them for me. And then we all ran like hell for the next five hours; we didn’t stop until we reached the safety of the Honduran frontier.

Surf or Die

Chewed up and spat out by the world's most ferocious wave

JAWS WAS A CIRCUS, spewing 60-foot waves like Neptune was on a rampage. This was last December 15, and a dozen tow-in teams were battling for position at the famous monster break, off Maui’s north shore; 50 more jet skis and a half-dozen boats sat in the channel watching; and five helicopters were flying overhead. No one was following any rules, but despite the crowd my partner Ryan Rawson finally whipped me into a six-story bomb.

The 14-pound board I’d been testing in 30-foot California surf was way, way too light, and I couldn’t hold the line. I fell, and I knew I was in for the beating of my life. I closed my eyes, went Zen, and… baboom!—the wave exploded on top of me.

When I surfaced 20 seconds later I saw a dude on another 60-footer breaking right in front of me. I took a deep breath and dove, but I had two problems: the pair of life jackets I was wearing. I couldn’t get under. My legs were sticking out, so I got “scorpioned”—folded in half backwards, my left heel ramming into the back of my head—while being dragged underwater for about 150 yards. For 30 seconds, it felt like King Kong had me by the feet and was just going apeshit rag-dolling me. I relaxed and took a dozen breaststrokes, but I was still down deep. Stars flashed in the corners of my eyes. I finally broke the surface, gasping for air. A film-crew chopper buzzed overhead, and I thought, I’m saved! But they just sat there filming me die. I prayed for them to harpoon me in the leg and fly me away.

Then the third wave hit. I figured since I was so far in, it would be weaker. Wrong. I surfaced, my left eye temporarily blind from the impact. When Ryan finally came around to pick me up, I thought it was over, but that warm and fuzzy feeling soon vanished. The fourth wave avalanched us both off the jet ski. I came up and saw Ryan swimming, about 30 yards away, with yet another big wall of whitewash pounding down. The rocks were straight ahead. That’s it, I thought, but someone—I still don’t know who—rescued me.

Back on the boat, I hurt everywhere. Squirming with pain, my knee wrapped in ice, I popped a heavy painkiller and chugged a couple of beers. Then I sat back and watched, dazed and confused but wishing I could shake it off and get back in the game.

I’d sustained a concussion, hyperextended my back and hip, yanked a ligament in my knee, and had my ego shattered. I surfed Jaws again last March—and used a heavier board.

Pinto Mean!

The perils of raising a grumpy colt

Worst Moments in the World Outside

Worst Moments in the World Outside

I WAS A GRAD STUDENT in northwestern Florida in 1990 when a breakup with a girlfriend exiled me and the dogs to a trailer on several acres in the country. Wandering the adjacent Apalachicola National Forest one afternoon, I encountered a lone horseman, Stetson pulled low, .22 snugged in a scabbard, a string of bloody squirrels dangling from his saddle. My yapping mutts craved those rodents, but the rider reined in his mount, wheeled, and scattered the dogs. Then, with a terse nod, he moved on, like a knight of true country can-do. I wanted what he had: competence, confidence, mastery. At least, I thought, I could get myself a horse.

I found a real beauty—and cheap—a pinto colt with mismatched eyes: one dark, one lunatic blue. I called him Kidd, but from the get-go my equine scion reminded me all too much of myself, the big crybaby. He whinnied for his lost mother all that first day and night, blubbering in the corner of the pasture, and he clung to his resentment as he grew into a half-ton adolescent.

Despite his no-account ways, I made a mount of him—but soon found that galloping a spooky, green horse was an excellent way to break your freaking neck. And he was no fool. He knew my dogs’ deal: no work, nobody sitting on them. After a ride during which I was stuffed into a turkey oak, I threw in the towel and let him chase trucks along the fence with the rest of the pack.

Around this time I began to receive sinister phone calls. Some of my students, disgruntled and dark-intentioned, had to be behind them. I was teaching five freshman English classes—badly—and my dissertation was overdue. My life was a mess. Yet I took great comfort in the proximity of the big beast. Hunkered down in my studies, I’d hear the trailer suddenly begin to crackle like a beer can crushed in a fist. But it would just be the Kidd, scratching his ass with my house.

Returning from school one day, I saw the screen door hanging from one hinge and the front door gaping. My God, I thought, they came for me! Vengeful students! Terrible paranoiac fear gripped me, and behind every tree I suspected maleficent laughter being muffled. Everything—everything—had been dashed and smashed. Such spite! Broken glass, groceries shredded and busted, my possessions torn, strewn, and stomped. Stomped! The den had been more perfunctorily trashed—but unmistakably signed, as it were. On the shag, a halo of bluebottle flies buzzing above, lay a great steaming pile. Of horse manure.

So much for competence, confidence, and mastery. I found the culprit at the very back corner of the property, dozing the doze of the righteous.


A guided tour through an avalanche, where fear and fascination collide

Worst Moments in the World Outside

Worst Moments in the World Outside

IT LOOKED LIKE A HEARD of white buffalo stampeding down on me. I just had time to yell down to the others, “Avalanche! Hang on!” before it hit me with the force of 10,000 pillows. It was shockingly painless. I catapulted backwards, and my mechanical ascender held briefly to the fixed rope. Then it snapped and I sailed off into space.

Five of us were climbing 20,298-foot Parchamo, a Nepalese peak about 30 miles west of Everest. For the past ten days we’d been trekking up the Thame Valley to reach our 18,500-foot high camp, on the Tesi Lapcha Pass. Now we were going for the summit, and my altimeter had just clicked over to 20,000.

I accelerated to the speed of the avalanche and could do nothing but softly tumble, arms and legs flailing. In spite of my speed, time slowed. I traveled deep inside the mass. Snow pressed me down and held me up. I thought, This is different.

I had time to understand that it was beautiful. The light was a soft translucent blue that became brighter or darker depending on my depth. I never saw sunlight, but could periodically see the surface. The snow looked like tumbling blue dumplings. I watched as one large block skidded beside me for what seemed a long time. It was squarish at first but disintegrated as it slowly rolled over, then veered away. The snow blocks were not malevolent. It was as if they were escorting me, emotionless companions, as we traveled together on the road to hell.

I didn’t think I would die, but I hoped I wouldn’t. This thought never left my mind. Objectively, I realized I could die; subjectively, I wouldn’t allow it. I had to live. Plummeting, I fought to reach the surface, but I couldn’t. I forced my head up and gasped for air. I’d fight until my last breath.

Ultimately we slowed. The deceleration happened suddenly but softly, like a truck plowing into a snowbank. I was facedown, headfirst, thinking, Uh-oh, dead people stop facedown.

Then there was a second surge and I was propelled forward again. It flipped me over and sideways. We lurched to a stop with an audible crunch, the first sound since impact, and I finally saw daylight. I wasn’t surprised to find myself on the surface, but I did feel an eerie satisfaction. I had been swept a thousand feet down and now lay at the very toe of the slide. My ride lasted perhaps 30 seconds.

The fight left me exhausted, with that creepy feeling of coming out of anesthesia. With the little strength I had left, and before the snow totally cemented me in, I struggled to free my arms and legs. I lay as if on a crucifix, arms spread wide, hips high, back arched inelegantly. After freeing myself from my pack and digging out, I realized that I was alive—and alone.

The fleeting rush of having survived was preempted by concern for the others. I saw one friend partially buried nearby and dug out his face. I thought surely some of the others were dead, and I held my head in my hands, inconsolable and utterly spent. But slowly, miraculously, everyone was found or dug out. As we collected ourselves and what was left of our gear, I glanced at my watch: It was 7:45 a.m. The day had barely begun, yet it was already defined for a lifetime.

Itchy and Scratchy

When nature calls in the woods, think before you reach

Worst Moments in the World Outside

Worst Moments in the World Outside

I LEARNED TO DEFECATE in the woods while I was still in single digits. Our small Wisconsin farm was surrounded by hundreds of acres of swamp and forest, and my siblings and I were often out of washroom range when the urge struck. We became precocious connoisseurs of organic cleansing media. Wipeability factors varied: Oak leaves gave good coverage, but their slickness limited absorption. Pine needles were worthless, even injurious, but had the benefit of smelling like tree-shaped air fresheners. Moss was fragile, soggy, and sandy, but had a decent swab factor. Finally, I can say without reservation that a fat handful of poison-ivy leaves did the job quite nicely. The initial job, that is. The sequelae, to use a physician’s term, were untenable.

I was 14, which, given my experience toileting alfresco, made my mistake doubly knot-headed. Grandpa had taken a passel of us to a riverside swimming hole. I still remember squatting in the bushes before jumping in, prospecting for leaves after it was too late to relocate. The only trees within reach were pines. I groped behind me and felt a clump of flat, wide leaves. Bingo!

It took a while for the itching to commence. Early on, while still in the water, I felt squirmy twinges of an intimate nature, but, hey, what’s new? Back home two hours later, I was race-walking around the living room, fully prepared to drop my shorts and do the naughty-puppy carpet scoot. Cross-eyed and panting, I racked my brain and reviewed the day. When I got around to reenacting the outdoor toity session, I blanched.

I wound up with such a blistering case that I was taken to a clinic for corticosteroid shots. The doctor also prescribed a topical cream and instructed my mother (a nurse) to apply it daily. Florence Nightingale herself wouldn’t have shown up for that gig. I spent a week sleeping on my stomach, fitful and straddle-legged. Standard bathroom procedure went out the window, replaced by a wincing gavotte in which I lowered myself to the seat, did the deed, drew a baking soda bath, and delicately cleansed and patted myself dry. One misstep and I would collapse into a seizure of spastic monkey-scratching. Years later I came across a poster in a print shop that said IT’S NOT THE BURNING, IT’S THE ITCHING, MAN! and I thought, Amen.

For a long time, the fact that I’d wiped my butt with poison ivy was my little secret. I have to believe Mom had her suspicions, even though I explained it away by saying I’d backed into the stuff while changing into my bathing suit. She kept a log of my childhood illnesses, and the entry for August 7, 1979, says, “poison ivy, lower trunk.” Delicately put, don’t you think?

Cannery Woe

A salmon butchery goes from bloody routine to living hell

BETWEEN JOBS A FEW YEARS BACK, I decided to work in a southwest Alaskan cannery in Dillingham, which is not so much a town as an open-air boat garage by a tent city near Bristol Bay. Shifts ran 16 hours, 24/7. I had not been on the slime line five minutes that day, my fifth, when I was pelted in the throat with a salmon heart. It lay near my boot—a fleshy, violet organ the size of a Concord grape. Across the conveyor belt, a man steeped in piscine vital fluids grinned. “Come on, take a shot,” he said. “Have some fun or you’ll lose your fucking mind.”

Back then I was a great believer in easy money. One day a friend had said he’d gotten a little bit rich gutting salmon in Alaska—and it was a piece of cake. He’d told me to expect “at least five grand.” I’d bought a plane ticket instantly. My new job (cake, indeed, compared with a slot at the beheading station, where a guy had just chopped his hand off) involved wielding a dildoesque wand, vacuuming blood from the spines of flayed fish at a rate of 80 tons per day. The goo bore a disquieting resemblance to blackberry preserves, and the gelatinous rattle it made as the chrome tool inhaled it kept my gorge on the rise.

To ease my horror at having cashed in my summer for a life of gore-strewn monotony, I chatted up the girl beside me, who eviscerated her salmon with a vigor I admired. Her face was luminous with scales, and she wore a skein of golden roe in her hair. I tried to curry her sympathy by showing her my hand, swollen big as a catcher’s mitt from endless vacuuming. She looked at me and said, “I guess this work is tough—if you’re a pussy.”

The shift ended, and my colleagues and I, looking fresh off a Haitian-zombie-powder binge, dragged ourselves to our tents. But sweet sleep was impossible. Mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds roared under the rain fly. Next door, a couple, unhappy with how their Alaskan “vacation” was turning out, screamed at each other for hours before being interrupted by some bad news: The cannery had announced it was going bankrupt.

The whole place went insane. Armed fishermen stormed the offices. Someone boosted a front-end loader and tried to ransom it for lost wages. With nothing else to occupy them, the drunks and felons I’d worked alongside passed the time by rioting and assaulting one another. Fearing for my life, I skipped town.

I was never paid a cent for my labors, but the experience did no irreparable damage—except to my faith in the notion of a fast buck. My bloated hand returned to normal, and with a lot of scrubbing I banished the slaughterhouse aroma from my skin. I rarely think back on those days, but at the occasional dinner party, when somebody serves me a salmon puff or a lox crostini, I quietly push my plate away, as if there were a scorpion on it.

Belly Dance

Loose of bowels and out of luck in North Africa

FOR A WEEK I’d been laid up in Jerba, a run-down resort isle on Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast, with a ghastly stomach bug that had liquefied my innards. Even so, I was determined to visit Tataouine before leaving the country. This dusty southern settlement at the edge of the Sahara is renowned for its ksours—ancient Berber strongholds built into the rocky hillsides—but Star Wars nerds know that it sits in an area filled with locations used in the first movie. I wanted to go there and poke around. “Tataouine is only a two-hour drive,” I whined to my traveling partner, my then-wife Jackie, as a Jerban doc named Borgi poked my distended gut and scribbled a prescription.

Next morning, I gulped down a handful of mystery pills, rented a car, and hit the road. By the time we got to the vicinity of Tataouine, I was so cramped and feverish that we scrapped plans to return to Jerba and decided to make the daylong trip to Tunis, the country’s bustling capital, in search of an English-speaking physician and a decent hotel.

On a barren stretch of highway, our car’s oil light flashed red. I pulled over and yanked the dipstick: not a hint of oil. Another mile and the engine would’ve seized. After a 25-minute walk in the blistering sun, we found a rickety roadside kiosk. A freshly slaughtered goat hung from the awning, its blood pooling in the hot sand. On a shelf behind the counter I spotted motor oil, which the merchant happily sold me for about $10 a quart.

In Tunis, we checked into a hotel and I set out to return the car, braving the Tunisian rush hour, a snarling mayhem of cars, buses, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Two blocks later, a bus bashed my left front fender. The driver leaped out, waving his fist and shouting in Arabic. His passengers were irate, shrieking and pointing at me. After jotting down a phone number, he darted back to the bus and drove off.

The car was barely drivable. I parked in an alley and staggered to the rental office, making several stops at restaurants along the way to relieve my tumultuous bowels. Nobody at the car place spoke English or grokked my stick-man drawing of the accident, so I indicated to one of the agents to follow me. When we reached my car, it had been booted. The agent scolded me in Arabic, shoved the car keys in my breast pocket, and ran away.

By now it was dusk, and I felt utterly helpless. I returned to the car office and pleaded with the agent to help me, but our language barrier was insurmountable. Rational thought ended right there. I hurled the keys, dashed out the door, and sprinted the eight blocks back to our hotel in the dark.

Breathless and frantic, I told Jackie to pack. We barricaded ourselves in the room, certain that the Tunisian police were scouring the streets for the evil, auto-smashing Americans. At dawn we flagged a cab to the airport. Three hours later we were in Geneva, and by morning I was cheerfully handing stool samples to a Swiss doctor. He wondered why we ever went to Tunisia in the first place. Damned if I could remember.

Kamp Soggy Bottom

Atop storm-raked Mount Washington with a big, useless drip

Worst Moments in the World Outside

Worst Moments in the World Outside

I WAS 16 AND TRAPPED in a thunderstorm on a mountain known for some of the worst weather in the world. Next to me a grown man lay sobbing, whimpering, pounding the mud with his fists. He was my counselor.

It was 1987, and I’d been sent to a tough-love camp in Vermont, a place where they promised to teach resourcefulness and self-reliance. The camp had dispatched us—seven teenage boys plus a pudgy career graduate student I’ll call Wayne (the mud-hugger)—on a three-week hike through New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Things went bad right away. Wayne was clueless, so we’d lost the trail and wolfed down all our rations. Next it started raining—first a drizzle, then a deluge. After three nights in a wet sleeping bag, Wayne was talking to himself.

“Yo,” one of the campers whispered. “I think Wayne’s lost it.”

“Give him time,” I said, feeling increasingly unglued myself. “Maybe the rain will stop.”

It didn’t, at which point the expedition, strung out by hunger and the gathering dread that none of us would ever know dryness again, descended into madness.

On the worst day, halfway through, we reached the top of Mount Washington, the 6,288-foot peak that, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, is the site of the highest sustained surface wind speed ever recorded (231 miles an hour).

As we summited, the rain broke, and a complex of buildings—a mountaintop observatory and cafeteria—materialized in the thinning fog. Desperate and dehumanized, we invaded the cafeteria like crazed animals, foraging in the trash for soggy French fries and half-chewed pizza crusts, slurping ketchup straight from the packets, and raiding the salad bar with bare hands. Meanwhile, Wayne telephoned the camp director and tried to weasel out of the last ten days of the hike.

“Suck it up and get back on the trail,” the director barked. Which we did, just in time to get walloped by a reconstituted storm that seemed like a Hollywood special effect.

“Run!” people on the trails shouted. “Find shelter!” When the storm climaxed in a fusillade of breathtakingly close lightning bolts and hurricane-force winds, we were still above tree line, scrambling to get off a naked ridge. That was how I ended up hunkered in the mud, next to an all-but-catatonic Wayne.

“I can’t take it anymore,” he whined. “I want to go home.”

“I know,” I said.

That night, when I crawled inside my wet sleeping bag, I’d absorbed an important lesson about self-reliance: Adults aren’t actually in control, and they can be just as weak as children. The next day the sun came back, and it didn’t rain again the entire trip. Wayne, however, was no longer our leader. He was just another body on the trail, and when the hike was over and we returned to camp, he quietly slipped away.


On El Capitan, there’s nowhere to hide when things fall from the sky

Worst Moments in the World Outside

Worst Moments in the World Outside

WHAT ARE THE ODDS? That one man’s bare behind, hung off the Long Ledge bivouac near the top of Yosemite’s El Capitan, could deposit all its foulness directly on our heads, with us 600 feet lower and dangling from our ropes? I mean, really, when you consider the powerful crosswinds, the ubiquitous updrafts, and the rather loose character of most big-wall bowel movements, it’s got to be one in a million.

But that’s exactly how it happened. My two climbing partners and I were 2,000 feet off the ground, three days into a five-day ascent of the Salathé Wall, widely considered the finest pure rock-climb on earth. Reuben Margolin, our mad and jovial visionary, had just led a very hard pitch, and I stood a rope length below, with our Fish haul bag and our steely-eyed enviro-warrior, Jonathan Kaplan. Then we heard a whistling sound, the terrifying evidence of an object hurtling down from above. Instinct told us it had to be a rock, so we hugged the cliff and awaited the worst—and the worst certainly came, though it took the form of countless fecal asteroids splattering across our heads and shoulders.

Stunned, Jonathan and I stared at the wet brown pie on the bright-red nylon top of our haul bag. Our next bath was 48 hours away. We had no soap, water was in short supply, and that instant hand-sanitizer stuff hadn’t even been invented. So we were screwed, and we suddenly started screaming like stuck pigs, cursing the careless bastards high above and then cursing them some more. After that we dug out a pocketknife to cut every soiled sleeve off our shirts and to snip big locks from each other’s hair. With a few lukewarm drops of water we made a hopeless attempt to scrub the fresh human feces from our already filthy skin, and then we did the only thing we could do: We climbed onward, muttering bloody murder.

But the next evening, when we reached Long Ledge, we found something surprising: a plastic bag with an apologetic note (SORRY, DUDES, WE DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE THERE) and a peace offering that included a box of Lemonhead candies, a can of chicken meat, and a joint. We had plenty of treats of our own, and I’d stopped smoking pot in the 11th grade, but I loved the gesture. Lame though it was, it conjured the guilt they must have felt, their sense of common cause with us, and the bond we still shared, simply for having been on that spectacular wall at the same time, together.

Tour de Farce

Some mountains just want to be left alone

AS AN ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER, every time I take a trip, I’m thinking, This could be the one, the one that makes a million bucks, the one that brings fame, fortune, enlightenment—something. In April 1997, I was part of a group that got permission to traverse the Rishi Gorge, in the Indian Himalayas, and ski 23,360-foot Trisul, where no foreigner had been in at least 15 years. A dream trip.

The plan was to take the peak’s mild north face, but when we got to Delhi a bureaucrat informed us, “You will climb from the other side.” Instead of powdery slopes, we’d be attempting sheer icefalls on the weather-whipped southwest face. With skis. We decided to go for it, cramming seven of us, a cook, a helper, two drivers, a guide, and a month’s supplies into a minibus.

Two days later, we were in Rishikesh, where the Beatles got enlightened. I was in my hotel room when a friend hit the floor—face first. Seizure. Holy shit! Turned out he wasn’t just your typical party animal/ski junkie; he was literally a heroin addict, and he’d quit cold before we left. Maybe he thought the trip would cure him—I don’t know. But as we’d been going up the mountains, he’d been going into withdrawal. We nursed him back to health and moved on. It’ll get better in the mountains, I thought.

But this was just a taste. One day everything self-destructed. We’d made base camp early and sent the porters packing—with our gear. Supplies had disappeared. One group had stolen our kerosene; in the distance, we saw them furtively leaking it to lighten their loads. A while later, smoke wafted up from the valley below. They’d started a wildfire with our fuel! Whether it was the result of sabotage—two of them had been savagely bickering—or a cigarette, we never found out. We watched in horror as acres burned. Once we’re higher up, I thought, it’ll get better.

At 20,000 feet, we saw snow leopard tracks, and for about a minute it seemed like things might turn out OK. But the route was dangerous, the climbing over our heads, and most of our food had been pinched. As we ate our soy nuggets, we pictured the cook’s goat on a spit. Moving on, we soon saw that a huge slide had wiped out our route. Then monsoon clouds rushed in, as if on cue. That was it. Cursed! Our hearts just weren’t in it anymore. We never even saw the summit.

Vanquished, we returned to camp, where the cook dispatched his goat. Within ten minutes we finally saw the sign that told us once and for all to get the hell out of there. It was a sign in the heavens: lammergeiers, vultures with ten-foot wingspans. They knew dead meat when they saw it.

Paddling Fool

On the dark waters of Brooklyn, only a nut goes out at night

I WAS HOME ALONE some years back on a gray and misty Halloween. My girlfriend had gone to Manhattan, leaving me to face the sticky-fingered procession of ghosts and goblins ringing our doorbell. Fifteen lollipops later, I desperately needed to get away, so I bolted to my kayak club, on the western edge of Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay, for an early-evening paddle.

Jamaica Bay consists of nearly 10,000 acres of brackish water crisscrossed by shipping lanes, and this time of year I usually stayed off it past 4 p.m. Wise policy. I was about five miles out, feeling smug and at peace, when a ghoulish fog descended. In about five minutes I was lost—with no food, water, compass, or foul-weather gear.

Two hours of fruitless meandering later, the sound of traffic drew me to a garbage-strewn beach. I emerged dripping from the shadows, paddle in hand, and slouched toward the road like an escaped kayaking felon. I should have flagged down a car, but as I hopped in place under a streetlight’s spooky glow, I hesitated. Assuming some naive or bizarre soul would even stop to pick me up, would I want to get in? Besides the risk of meeting Hannibal Lecter, it would mean leaving my expensive racing kayak unprotected in a neighborhood of high funk.

Several cars sped by before I spied the flashing red light atop the World Trade Center. Ha! I knew that if I paddled toward the beacon on top, I would hit my home channel. So I jumped back in the boat and started hammering.

Unfortunately, at water level the light vanished, and I ran smack into a labyrinth of islands. Wending my way through the narrow channels like a nearsighted lab rat, I ran aground.

As I pulled my boat through knee-deep mud, a hard rain began to fall. The temperature was 44 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was in shorts and a T-shirt. I blundered onto a hummock and started running in place to warm up. I ran all night, in ankle-deep water. When the rain finally stopped, just after dawn, I sat down and nodded off, head between my knees like a Bowery bum.

I eventually pulled up to the dock at 8:30 a.m., 15 hours after I set out. Standing there were my parents, the commodore of my kayaking club, a few law-enforcement types, and my girlfriend. Do you recall the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper come back from the dead and everybody’s happy? Well, I didn’t get much “happy.”

The commodore said it best: “It’s not easy to break that many rules on one paddle. Nice going, dipshit.”

Bleak Streak

Trapped! On the tundra! and having a cold, hard time…

A FEW YEARS AGO, a magazine approached me to write about a quirky and very rich British adventurer who was determined to cross the ocean by car. He planned to put in at the Bering Strait, a 53-mile-wide gap of ice-choked sea. The story sounded like fun—Shackleton meets Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—and I went to the British countryside to observe a test of the adventurer’s customized floatable steed, which looked like a Zamboni mounted on barrels. I should have known something was off. The vehicle entered a farm pond and sank. I spent two days standing in a muddy field while the adventurer, undaunted, struggled to drag the machine ashore. I petted some sheep.

Two months later, I arrived in a tiny Inupiat village on the strait. In short order, I learned that the adventurer had offered a documentary film crew exclusive access to his trials and triumphs, and that my presence in the village was little welcomed. I was tempted to high-tail it home, but the weather—lashing horizontal winds, whirling snowdrifts, sub-zero temperatures—meant that planes could be grounded for weeks.

No doubt the remoteness of the setting influenced my mood. But I experienced a crushing flare-up of the kind of childhood wound that comes from being left off the team. I had some practical problems, too. The adventurer and his crew had taken over the only guesthouse in the village—the weapons-studded compound of a bearish Vietnam vet—and I wandered the outpost’s single lane in search of accommodation. A sorrowful-looking man of around 40 opened his door to me. His name was Echo. He could offer me an old, stained mattress on the floor of a storage room. It was as cold as a meat locker.

I liked Echo. He was as depressed as I was. He spent his days in a monotony of idleness. At night his friends would drop by and play cards until dawn, chain-smoking. I smoked a good deal, too, and did nothing to discourage the card players’ mockery of the adventurer.

So it went, until one morning, a few weeks into my stay, I woke to find clear skies and still winds. I strayed from Echo’s house and trudged to the frozen beach. The sea looked like the world’s biggest, most dangerous Slurpee. I was elated to be outdoors, and to know that the clear skies meant my plane would come soon to take me away. I decided to celebrate by climbing the hulking, ice-encased mountain at the edge of the village.

The footing was a bit tricky, but as I climbed, the view of the strait was glorious. I saw Russia, floating on the sea below. That’s when I slipped. My boots flew out from beneath me. I slid, and kept sliding, and accepted that my last moments on earth would be spent as a missile sailing across tundra.

A few hundred feet down, my backpack got snagged on some stones, and I came to a halt. I traversed the slope on all fours in search of a safe place to stand. In this proud posture, I heard a sound overhead. It was the adventurer, hovering in his helicopter. He shouted down to me. “You OK, mate?” I gave him a thumbs-up. He looked toward me with his toothy, charismatic smile. “Join us for dinner tonight, mate?” I nodded and waved him on. Then I crawled back to the village, packed my bags, and whiled away the night with Echo, the card players, and a giant bag of Doritos.

Tragic Tomes

Great books about bad luck

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
, by John H. Patterson — Two lions savage a railroad work gang in East Africa.

, by Ernest Shackleton — His ship crushed by ice, the explorer rescues his men from certain doom in the Antarctic.

Wind, Sand, and Stars
, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — Tales from the pioneer of perilous flights across the Andes and the Sahara.

A Night to Remember
, by Walter Lord — The RMS Titanic‘s final hours.

, by Piers Paul Read — Stranded high in the Andes by a plane crash, Uruguayan rugby players survive by cannibalizing dead teammates.

Touching the Void
, by Joe Simpson — Injured by a fall on the Andes’ 20,853-foot Siula Grande, climber Joe Simpson is dropped into a crevasse and must crawl down the mountain or die.

Young Men and Fire
, by Norman Maclean — The 1949 Mann Gulch wildfire leaves 12 smoke jumpers in ashes.

Into the Wild
, by Jon Krakauer — Chris McCandless walks alone into the Alaskan wilderness, destined to starve.

The Perfect Storm
, by Sebastian Junger — The six-man crew of the Andrea Gail is lost in a deadly October 1991 nor’easter off Nova Scotia.

In the Land of White Death
, by Valerian Albanov — In 1912, a Russian sailor, stranded in Arctic pack ice for 18 months, leads 13 men to seek help, but only two survive.

In the Heart of the Sea
, by Nathaniel Philbrick — In the event that inspired Moby Dick, after the whaler Essex is destroyed by an 85-foot sperm whale, the crew resorts to cannibalism.

The Proving Ground
, by G. Bruce Knecht — A storm decimates a fleet of boats in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race, drowning six sailors in the Tasman Sea.

Over the Edge
, by Greg Child — Kidnapped by Islamic guerrillas in August 2000, four American climbers plot their escape in Kyrgyzstan’s rugged Pamir-Alai Mountains.

Shadow Divers
, by Robert Kurson — A World War II U-boat wreck becomes a deadly seven-year obsession for a diving crew.

From Outside Magazine, Oct 2005 Lead Photo: Geoff Kern

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