Explorers Web

The Grudge Report

Expedition bloggers Tom and Tina Sjogren love a great adventure. But if they don't like yours, get ready for a fight.

Explorers Web
Bryant Urstadt

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TOM AND TINA SJOGREN, the founders of ExplorersWeb, are rugged adventurers, as hardy as they come. They’d have to be to last so long in room 217 of the Arapahoe Inn. It’s the cheapest motel in Keystone, Colorado, and it offers pretty much every feature employed by a manager trying to shave pennies off his overhead, including dorm-grade furniture, a polyester bedspread in teal-and-purple camo, and halls as dark as the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Explorers Web

Explorers Web

The Sjogrens, who are wealthy but thrifty, have endured the Arapahoe for six weeks already. This is their home at the moment—they’ve sublet their expensive Manhattan loft—which also makes room 217 the current HQ of ExplorersWeb (explorersweb.com), one of the world’s most avidly read and argued-about online hubs for hardcore adventurers. The site, which debuted in 1999, is an information-jammed clearinghouse for breaking news about expeditions, feats, and rescue missions, as well as a no-holds-barred forum for manifestos, rants, and interviews with mountaineers, trekkers, and explorers of every kind.

Planning to climb Pakistan’s Broad Peak in winter? Crossing the Arabian Sea in a pedal boat? ExWeb’s got you covered, practically by the minute, and will be the first to offer congratulations or catcalls, depending on what the Sjogrens think of your exploits.

As a voice of the far-flung, the heavily trafficked ExplorersWeb has established a reach that may be unparalleled for a site of its kind. When Tom and Tina broke the news last year that stranded Everest climber Lincoln Hall was alive and had been rescued—earlier, his expedition leader sent out a press release saying he was dead—the site logged 100,000 visitors. There would have been more, but it crashed under the load.

ExplorersWeb also reaches far beyond its readership, because it serves as a feeder for the mainstream media. In a typical three-month period, Tina says, she got requests for reporting leads from more than 20 different outlets, including Reuters, AP, the BBC, The New York Times, National Geographic, Climbing, Outside, and even Al Jazeera.

Show up at room 217, as I did one evening during a snowstorm in March, and you’ll see what looks like a spy-movie stakeout. Tom has a laptop set up on a desk overlooking a snow-covered Highway 6. Though March is a relatively slow month for news, Tina still spends most of each day on the bed with a laptop balanced on her legs, editing dispatches. (ExWeb is busiest in May, when readers are following expeditions on Everest.) Equipment is piled everywhere. Waterproof, shockproof Pelican cases are stacked against a wall; a corner is filled with plastic bins full of adapters and cables. All around are random heaps of HP iPaq PDAs, Thuraya satellite phones, and Nera sat modems.

Tom, 47, is Swedish. He’s a trim five-eleven, his skin burnished from the wind and cold. He keeps his sable hair tightly cropped and favors black and gray T-shirts, designer denim, and sandals.

Tina, 48, is a Swedish citizen who was born in Czechoslovakia back when it was under Soviet control. She has light-blue eyes and a giant frizz of blond hair, which she generally tames with a wool hat screwed down almost to the top of her eyebrows.

Both of them are perpetually busy, working from eight in the morning until ten at night, every day. Tina usually tends ExWeb, with help from paid freelance correspondents and editors in New York, Sweden, and Spain. Tom oversees a lucrative side business that involves selling satellite-ready communications packages to explorers, under the brand name HumanEdgeTech. The software and hardware—which Tom helped create—are bundled as a product called Contact 4.0, which allows explorers to manage Web sites from just about any location.

Tom expects that 15 to 20 Everest expeditions will use his $3,000 packages this season, and he’s also sold them to NASA, the U.S. Army, and the USGS. The entire operation is breaking even, he says, with Contact 4.0 sales making up for the small annual deficits from ExplorersWeb.

Right now, Tom is on overdrive: He has to get out 17 packages in the next three days, and a client is coming over from Denver tonight at eight. Which leaves Tom and Tina just enough time for a tasty snack. Tina bounds off the bed, pulls ingredients out of a mini-fridge, and whips up a dill-crab-and-spinach sandwich.

“It’s Swedish,” she says. “Very healthy.”

FOR THE SJOGRENS, ExplorersWeb is not so much a news portal as a calling. They created it after climbing Everest without guides in 1999; they had found little reliable information for independent climbers like themselves, so they posted what they’d learned as a way to “give back.” Initially the site was called MountEverest.net, focusing mainly on news from the world’s highest peak. Over time it evolved into ExplorersWeb—a catchall site with links to specific topics like Everest, Oceans, Poles, and Space.

When you ask the Sjogrens why they do it, they talk about their motivations in nearly religious terms. “My grandfather was ten years in prison under the Soviets, for printing political stuff,” Tina explains. “He was one of those guys who told it like it was. Much of ExplorersWeb comes from that.”

They also give it up for Mother Teresa, whom they met while backpacking through India in 1985. Their visit was brief but powerful. “She sent us on our way to do our work in the world,” says Tina. “It changed our lives. She blessed us to do good, really.”

Sounds joyous, but their mission often leads to harsh coverage that many people find hard to take, and favorite target=s include prominent commercial guides, outfitters, and explorers who, one way or another, don’t meet with Tom and Tina’s approval. It was ExplorersWeb that, right or wrong, accused Everest guide Russell Brice of malfeasance because the Sjogrens think he should have tried harder to save the life of independent climber David Sharp in 2006. It was ExplorersWeb that accused Everest outfitter Henry Todd of supplying faulty oxygen to climbers. And, day after day, it is ExplorersWeb that practically tape-measures the claimed feats of dozens of adventurers, often causing anger, outrage, and embarrassment.

“I do think they run witch hunts,” says Ed Douglas, a lifelong climber and journalist who’s written about mountaineering for 20 years. “Their moral outrage is not helpful … it’s bad for climbing.”

Others counter that the Sjogrens’ high-handedness is usually justified. One fan is Michael Kodas, a writer with The Hartford Courant who’s finishing a book about the modern ugliness on Everest.

“There’s a great need for coverage of what’s happening on the mountain,” he says. “A lot of what Tom and Tina say is dead-on, though some of it is completely outrageous. I have a lot of respect for them. If ExWeb wasn’t doing this stuff, nobody would. They really have changed the face of adventuring.”

As adventurers, the Sjogrens are the real thing. They’ve climbed Everest and attempted McKinley. In 2002 they skied unsupported to the South Pole, a 63-day journey. They rested for a month and then headed for the North Pole, which they reached after 67 days, making Tina the first woman to ski to both poles unsupported. They’re now training for a two-person climb on K2 in 2008—unguided—which is why they moved from New York to Keystone. With business so good, unfortunately, it’s getting hard to find time to train.

Their lives have always been a little crazy. Tina escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1968, at age nine, with her 29-year-old mother and one-year-old brother, leaving her father, a loyal Communist, behind. Tom was a competitive figure skater and a member of the Swedish national sailing team in the late seventies and early eighties.

They met when they were both 20 and started traveling the world. In 1986, they launched a Swedish business called Easy-shop, which delivers regularly scheduled shipments of toilet paper to customers. (“It’s a steady business,” says Tom, “and I’ve heard all the jokes.”) They got rich off it, giving them the freedom to expand their adventures, starting with Everest in 1996. They tried to summit four years in a row, failing the first three times. They took a break to sail across the Atlantic, setting out from the Canary Islands in November 1998 on an O’Day 37, a relatively modest sailboat for a crossing, arriving in St. Lucia in February 1999. They went back to Everest and bagged it that May.

Next, they moved to Manhattan, feeling pretty good about life. “We had summited Everest, crossed the ocean, and we were millionaires,” Tom says. Their first apartment was a penthouse on Central Park South. That felt too staid, so in 2000 they moved to a SoHo loft that became the base for ExplorersWeb until this spring.

After K2, their overarching desire is to take their act off-planet and—somehow, someway—get themselves to Mars. They aren’t kidding. Their goal is to be en route by 2014. They figure the project can be done privately for as little as $50 million to $100 million, and they plan to raise their own money. They’re ready to die in the attempt, if that’s what it takes.

“We talk about dying,” says Tina. “The only prayer I’ve made is that if we go, we go together.”

SNICKER IF YOU LIKE, but their idealism is sincere, and, at its best, ExplorersWeb is defined by it. The most compelling example is the story of the killing of 17-year-old Buddhist nun Kelsang Namtso at Nangpa La.

Nangpa La is a Himalayan pass a few miles to the west of Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world, and it’s a common route for refugees fleeing Tibet for Nepal. On September 30, 2006, Namtso was killed with a long-range rifle by the Chinese border police as she tried to cross. The shooting happened within sight of Cho Oyu advance base camp, in full view of some 100 people.

Word got out two days later, on October 2. Tina checked her e-mail and found a note from Luis Benitez, a Boulder-based guide who’d taken blind climber Erik Weihenmayer to the top of Everest in 2001.

“There is a story that happened here on the 30th and the 1st that is not being told,” Benitez wrote. He described glancing out of his team’s dining tent to see a line of Tibetans headed up the pass, hearing gunfire, watching the Tibetans break into a run, and then seeing two people gunned down. Though the facts coming in were sketchy, Tom and Tina went ahead with a tentative story headlined “Cho Oyu ABC Swarmed by Chinese Army—Tibetans Shot at Nangpa La?”

“The next day we get an e-mail from the mountain urging us to remove the story,” says Tina, declining to say who it was from. “There were commercial guides intimidating sources, saying that if they confirmed it, they would be detained at the border and that they wouldn’t be able to climb in the future.”

Benitez confirmed this to me, as did Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.–based Save Tibet, a nonprofit that conducted extensive follow-up interviews with the climbers and refugees. To the Sjogrens, active suppression—not just silence—was typical of the way some big outfitters reacted to the events. “Why did they lie?” Tom asks. “To protect their business. It’s like the mob. Follow the money and you will find your reason.”

“We said, ‘No, the story stays,’ ” Tina says. “So we had the story up for two days, but nothing happens. Then all of a sudden we start to see media. Now we get more confirmation. Save Tibet met with the refugees and interviewed them. But China denied. They said they had no information about any of that. So we posted a call to climbers. We said, ‘Guys, we need pictures.’ To our big surprise, three hours later, there are pictures in our mailbox from Pavle Kozjek, a Slovenian climbing a new route on the mountain. So we published the pictures and we sent them to Save Tibet. Now China turns around and says, ‘Yeah, OK, we did shoot them, but it was in self-defense.’ We made another posting. We said, ‘Guys, we need video.’ That’s when Sergiu sent us the video.” It arrived two days later.

Sergiu Matei is Romanian, and it’s no surprise to Tina that the photos and video were sent by citizens of formerly Communist countries. “No one knows better how a toothache hurts than someone who has had his tooth pulled,” she says.

THE FLYING ELBOWS have started plenty of feuds, leading to threats ranging from lawsuits to physical violence. Longtime Everest figure Henry Todd is high on the Sjogrens’ enemies list, in part because of his past. He spent seven and a half years in prison in the seventies for the marketing and distribution of LSD and was banned from Nepal for two years after a base-camp altercation in May 2000 with Finn-Olaf Jones, a Discovery.com producer. Jones claimed he was punched. Todd denied it, but he was convicted by a Nepalese court and got the boot. These days, he’s an Everest outfitter again and was scheduled to be working on the mountain in 2007.

The Sjogrens’ first anti-Todd salvo appeared in 2003 under the headline “Everest’s Most Dangerous Person, Henry Todd,” and it accused Todd of supplying faulty tanks to a number of expeditions over the years. The second, which ran in 2005, was a six-parter called “Oxygen on Everest—the Highest Death Lab in the World,” which reiterated many of their earlier charges. Both blasts included quotes from unnamed climbers who allegedly had problems with oxygen supplied by Todd, none of them leading to fatalities.

Did the Sjogrens make a solid case? It’s hard to say. Their reportorial style often skips the norms of American journalism: Personal invective is seen as fair play, and source attributions can be maddeningly vague. When I read ExplorersWeb, I’m sometimes left with the feeling that a story could very well be true or false, or somewhere in between. But, during my own research, I didn’t come across any substantive fact-based rebuttals to their stories, and so far no one has sued them for libel.

Asked about ExplorersWeb, Todd, speaking from Edinburgh, Scotland, said, “I personally don’t look at it, but my wife has looked at it, and my lawyers have looked at it.” He wouldn’t comment on any specific accusations. “We don’t respond because we regard these people as totally absurd.” He did, however, offer 20 minutes of insults, calling his foes “a pair of complete idiots, utterly ludicrous, an absurd pair.”

I asked Todd if he or his lawyer had ever taken legal action of any kind. “We couldn’t be bothered,” he said.

Another favorite target= is expedition leader Russell Brice, one of the most prominent guides on Everest. In 2006, a Brice team passed dying climber David Sharp on the way down from a summit bid, because he appeared to be beyond rescue. The Sjogrens’ fury over this incident has been directed largely at Brice, who they believe should have tried to save Sharp. Their Brice piece, headlined “The Most Shameful Act in the History of Mountaineering,” ran to coincide with the Discovery Channel’s fall 2006 broadcast of Everest: Beyond the Limit, a reality series that followed the progress of Brice’s expedition.

Brice has defenders—writing in Outside last year, Ed Douglas argued that it’s unfair to lay so much blame on him. In an e-mail, Brice expressed disdain for the Sjogrens. “ExplorersWeb were very hard on me and quite inaccurate,” he wrote. “However, I have never had anything to do with them in the past and I have no intention of having anything to do with them in the future, including making comments about their comments.”

Most explorers are charged with lesser crimes, usually against the record book. The Sjogrens have quibbled with exploration records claimed by David de Rothschild, Maud Fontenoy, and others. Fudging, in the Sjogrens’ view, is rampant in the adventure world, which they see as dominated by media hounds claiming specious firsts of all kinds. In their eyes, the mainstream media seem all too ready to lap up claims without scrutiny.

Many explorers, naturally, protest. “I’m not a fan,” says Ben Saunders, an Englishman who skied to the North Pole in 2004. Instead of starting from the Russian landmass and kayaking to the ice, he flew to the edge of the icepack, drawing jeers from the Sjogrens.

“By tradition, everybody has started at land,” Tom says.

“Dominick Arduin chose to start from land,” Saunders replies. “And she died.”

Despite such differences, Saunders says he can’t help but admit that ExplorersWeb is a great way to keep up. The site often irritates him, but he still checks it out once a week.

THE CONTACT 4.0 CUSTOMER shows up at the Arapahoe Inn just after eight. His name is Mike Haugen, and he’s leading an expedition on Everest this season. He’s driven through near-whiteout conditions from Denver to pick up his package.

Inside 217, Tom lays out the components, which include a waterproof case with a sat phone inside, an HP iPaq PDA with the Contact 4.0 software, and the Nera satellite modem. They need to test the sat modem, but there’s no good signal at the motel. Usually, Tom goes up to Loveland Pass, which is at 11,992 feet, but it’s ten o’clock and the snow has been coming down since five.

“We probably shouldn’t go,” says Haugen. “I think they’re gonna close that pass. It’s snowing pretty good out there.” They look out the window and decide to go anyway.

Tom, Tina, and Mike jump into the Sjogrens’ Ford Expedition and start up the road to Loveland Pass. Nine Inch Nails is blasting on the stereo; Haugen has his computer open on his lap, and the glow lights the cabin. Tina is leaning forward between the seats. The trip takes 15 minutes, and in the last ten they pass just two vehicles, a cowering 18-wheeler and some kind of snow-moving machine that looks like it came from another planet.

Then they pass two tracks leading over the edge of the winding road. They slow down and peer out. “I don’t see a car,” says Haugen. “I think the plow must have pushed snow down over there.”

“Let’s be good Everest summiteers and just keep going,” says Tom.

Finally, they reach the pass, which is nothing more than a small clearing amid a swirl of snow in the headlights. A sign reads WARNING BACKCOUNTRY USERS AVALANCHE BLASTING USING LONG RANGE WEAPONRY. While Tom and Mike search for a signal, Tina jumps out. In the dark, she starts taking pictures of the sign and of Tom and Mike in the car searching for a signal. The pictures are black. “You have to get out,” she says. “It won’t work.”

Mike finds a signal and the guys get out. Tina photographs them by the sign, by the car, by another sign. The cold is awful and everyone is shivering, so they all jump back in. They’ve clearly had fun on this escapade. As they head back, Tom, jazzed up, says to Haugen, “Did you hear about the guy who’s going to climb Everest naked?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Tina, already on top of it. “That goes up tomorrow.”