Sunday, March 18, 2001

e-Mail to Eden:

And other post-suburban adventures
in online explorenography

By Douglas McDaniel

Imagine Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, crossing uncharted America, cybercasting to transfixed wannabe settlers on the Eastern Seaboard. Among them, President Thomas Jefferson, who keys in “Louisiana” and clicks on “purchase.” Envision an Amelia Earhart, still alive if she’d only been more techno savvy, a spokesperson for Think of Stanley sending Dr. Livingston an e-mail page via satellite phone.

Then, click the mouse on Will Steger, “Solo from the Pole,” and feel the cold.

A lone man cruises on a chunk of ice at the North Pole. He’s stressed out from an unexpectedly rough journey onboard an icebreaker. He suffers from the early stages of pneumonia. He communicates each thought and sends images to an online audience.

Steger tracks his ice floe’s position with all kinds of satellite honing gizmos. He contends with the whimsical currents, diabolical fog, wind, cold, potential polar bear attacks. Day after day, via the National Geographic Web site, the dispatches keep coming.

“It amazes me still that I am isolated out here in a cloud bank near the North Pole and I am able to send these journal entries and photos out to you,” Steger writes to armchair explorers. “I have spent many hours in these claustrophobic tents writing in my journals, and I have never thought it would be possible to directly communicate my thoughts and observations.”

Steger is a pioneer, an innovator in the virtual adventure genre. First he faxed people on the progress of dogsled expeditions, then used e-mail for Arctic treks. The researcher and teacher’s intent with “Solo from the Pole” was to shed light on environmental issues with text, audio and digital images.

But a few days into the expedition, Steger decides that he can’t continue----his health and the weather conditions just make it too dangerous. In his next few messages, he attempts to coordinate his escape. His act of self-preservation is now the story. It’s a gripping, harrowing tale: GPS satellite, e-mail and radio communications must be coordinated by the minute. Finally, a Russian icebreaker is crunching toward him and a helicopter is seen over the rise of an ice mountain. “Rescues are sleepless times,” writes a relieved Steger.

Terrible, arduous steps. Not my own, mind you, but someone else’s. Fran and Serguei Arsentiev did what they said they would do. They stepped right into our offices at the Times-Journal in Telluride, Colorado, and told us they were going to climb Mount Everest. They walked out. They climbed to the top of Everest.

Telluride is surrounded by mountains. Many of them are 12,000 to 14,000. It’s not unusual for a local member of the service industry, some type-A, raw boned peaches and cream girl with tawny brown arms and gaunt jawbones, to wake up and climb to the top, come down, and be back in time to serve lunch to the touristas. Not me, of course. Not my steps. I cough up phlem well before I reach the tree line. By the time I make it----if I make it----to the high alpine reaches of the San Juans (maybe 10,000 feet), I’m ready to call in the helicopter rescue patrol.

Fran, in particular, did not look even the athletic type. On the other side the counter in the office, where the editor addressed the customer, the source, she looked a little on the heavy side. Hard to imagine her up in the Himalayas where angels, mad dogs, but certainly not Englishman, fear to tread.

There was an excitement, pure energy, in her voice. I looked at her, marveling at this crazy ambition to e-mail their daily exploits to our twice-a-week newspaper. Sure, I said, why not. Off-season is no season for news. I remember feeling a little jealous: e-mail was a new thing to me. How could they send it without a great line of wire leading, quite visibly, from Telluride to Katmandu and on up the trail? Everest, wired! How can anyone dare so much? I don’t even like to listen to the radio once I’m out of my car and in the woods, unplugged. How could anyone want so much out of life? Who has that kind of battery?


Though Will Steger’s mission to trek from the North Pole to Ellesmere Island was aborted, as an online entertainment, it’s a classic. Leif Ericsson, Ferdinand Magellan and Ponce de Leon really missed out. A Web connection is now recognized as one of the basic building blocks for a successful expedition.

“Back in the Stone Age----oh, say 1986----a North Pole expedition would rely upon radio contact from the ice to Resolute, then phone and fax from there to the rest of the world,” says Jeff Blumenfeld, editor of Expedition News. “Now explorers post daily journals on their Web sites----complete with digital images and streaming videos.”
Online outlets such as, and Discovery Online are demonstrating man’s curious desire to re-explore the much-trampled world, this time in cyberspace.

At climbers Conrad Anker and Eric Simonson send dispatches down from the top of the world. At National, surfers can follow Bob Ballard to the bottom of the sea for a view of the S.S. Titanic, the U.S.S. Yorktown or evidence of Noah’s flood.’s Dan Buttner’s puts a democratic spin on his bicycle treks. When he reaches a fork in the road, he asks viewers about which way he should turn. French explorer Bernard Buigues has taken on a challenge at that has the ring of a Steven Spielberg movie. His team posts regular updates of their attempt to thaw a male Woolly mammoth in an ice cave in Siberia. The goal: to find out if the prehistoric beast’s DNA can be cloned.

While ice picks, ropes and miniature submarines are standard issue for the modern cybernaut, be sure they are also packing laptops and a dizzying array of communications marvels. Satellite phones are not only capable of sending messages by word or in text, but also in digital images. At the viewer’s end of the adventure, such graphic pyrotechnics as Dynamic HTML, Shockwave and Flash puts the visual appeal of an ancient magazine warhorse like National Geographic on steroids.
“I think people are really interested in being engaged in the information directly,” says Mark Holmes, vice president of programming for National “Online expeditions allow people to participate in activities that they normally wouldn’t be able to do.”

At, the content is built around adventure mania. At any given time the Seattle-based media outlet is offering cybercasts from multiple continents. The expeditions often have bizarre twists, such as snowboarding in Antarctica or a doubly dangerous winter ascent of Mount Everest.

In the spring of 1999, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of their disappearance, an expedition co-sponsored by MountainZone went to Everest in search of evidence of Andrew Irvine and George Mallory, the famed Everest explorer who coined the climber’s rationale, “Because it is there.” Mallory’s body was discovered by the expedition at 27,000 feet. The discovery sent a kind of tremor through the climbing community. More than a few folks found the event to be macabre. Especially when a photograph of the body was posted on the Web site and sold to other magazines. But like the Jon Krakauer bestseller, “Into Thin Air,” the episode only helped to raise the celebrity status of the modern-day adventurer.

“We thought the only people that would be interested would be the climbers, but it ended up being covered by the world press,” says Eric Simonson, the leader of expedition, from his home near Mount Rainier, Wash. “The ability to use technology has caused the advent of mountaineering as spectator sport.”


We agreed that Jay Simon, one of our reporters, would handle the receipt of the correspondence on the e-mail. Once a week he would go online, gathering it up and the lone PC with online access in the office, and we would run it, no matter now roughly written, or how long it would take to make it presentable.

Not that it seemed too exciting, considering how risk-takers seemed to gather and settle in Telluride as if some unspoken invitation had been made to the world at large. So many people took risks so often, so matter of factly. A photographer, T.R. Youngstrom, had died in a helicopter crash and now his work was up on a wall and selling well in a local art gallery. Underwater cameramen on hiatus, generation Xers with bungee chords from brains, filled up the bars to dose their overload of adrenaline with waves of alcohol. More stories. More action. More adventure.

No, few readers ever mentioned the Fran and Sergeui Show, which it came to be known. There were the mountains. Avalanches eat the young. We all look up, have a memorial service, and get back to the danger. We are at this precipice to challenge the limit it fails to place on us. The mountains have failed. We plow over and around them. Little is questioned.


But around the world, Web has helped to turn adventure and exploration into hot commodities throughout our culture, Blumenfeld says. These days, he notes, wannabe explorers wear giant parkas in Central Park and hiking boots on the subway. They commute each day in oversized vehicles with names like Expedition, Navigator and Denali.

“People have become armchair explorers,” Blumenfeld says. “They love to dress as if they are going to Everest.”

Pioneers such as Steger were instrumental, he says, but things really took off with the climbing disaster on Everest that inspired Krakauer’s book. When twelve climbers died from the catastrophic storm in May of 1996, the only ways to get immediate news was either by satellite phone or by reading the Web, he says.

“The Internet has raised the bar on any expedition today,” Blumenfeld says. “You can’t just go to Everest. That’s been done before. You have to have a good concept. Kids want to be able to go home, log on and find out what happened with you today. Not only that, they want to be able to ask you questions.”

But Simonson, a freelance photographer, writer and veteran of 27 years of mountain expeditions around the world, hopes that the future of virtual adventuring is more visceral than sensational. “I think what’s interesting at is they are not interested in the first backwards, buck-naked ascent of Everest,” he says. “What they are looking for is the experience of the average climber.”

Even without a cybercast connection, Simonson, who also runs adventure vacations for paying customers, says his clients expect to have some kind of satellite communication on hand.

“You have to try not to let it become a distraction so that you can focus on why you were there in the first place,” he says. “I’m always trying to keep it balanced. I don’t want somebody on the expedition who is trying to call their stockbroker.”

Meanwhile, as a sincere form of flattery, the post-modern adventurer is regularly lampooned as a purveyor of “explorenography.” One of the better examples of the genre includes New York Times writer John Tierney, who, accompanied by David Breashears, attempted a passage of Times Square with a baby stroller on matinee day.
“Heading under the scaffolding on 42nd St., we’re plunged into a dark, hellishly narrow cave,” wrote Tierney. “Sloshing through filthy lakes, we head toward a distant light, but the escape is blocked by the line outside ‘The Lion King.’ Desperately ramming a stroller into a narrow wedge of light, Breashears blasts a hole through the crowd.”

For its part in the online adventure wave, Outside Online posted articles that included stingingly satirical portraits of the adventure medium. One spoofed zillionaires trying to outdo each other with their daring exploits: Virgin superbaron Richard Branson, after his failed ’round-the-world balloon attempts, as the first man to FedEx himself around the globe; Disney’s Michael Eisner as the first man to dig a hole to China.

But if you don’t have megabucks, the Internet is the way to go.

“You can’t get a sponsor unless you are Web savvy,” says Blumenfeld, who specializes in consulting to the exploration industry. “The Web is essential.”
And who can blame a type-A college grad with decent communcation skills, after seeing, for example,’s John Malusa’s laptop-toting biking treks, for thinking that a cybercast hero is something to be.

One can only guess how many lives have been saved by mere rejection notices from assigning editors already buried in travel receipts for satellites, Sherpas and yaks.’s Peter Potterfield, the site’s editor and publisher, went short of disclosing the weirdest ideas, saying only, “We are inundated with requests from people that want to do something wild and crazy with MountainZone’s involvement.”

Potterfield, whose site will be co-sponsoring its fourth Everest trek this spring, says it’s the “high drama” that makes for a successful Webcast. When the outcome is unpredictable, success or failure, even tragedy becomes part of the story.

For example, on Oct. 5, world-renowned climber Alex Lowe, 40, of Bozeman, Mont., and Dave Bridges, a 29-year-old climber and cameraman from Aspen, Colo., died in an avalanche during a MountainZone-sponsored expedition to Shishapangma, the 14th highest mountain on earth located in Tibet. The goal of the expedition was to reach the summit and ski down.

“We’ve had tragedies before, but nothing like that,” Potterfield says. “It was especially painful because until the accident happened it was one of the most actively watched entertainments we had done. It was a lot of fun, but when the tragedy struck the whole staff was devastated.”

Dispatches from Shishapangma stopped as the next of kin were notified and the remaining members of the expedition tried to pull themselves together. Yet, while Lowe and Bridges were buried beneath tons of ice and snow, the cybercast was taking on new life.

Under the dispatch titled, “What next?” expedition leader Andrew McLean wrote from base camp: “… Two of our friends are locked in the ice within eyesight of us and there is nothing we can do about it. It’s a sad and frustrating experience.”

That was one of nine post-tragedy dispatches. At the peak of the followup, Shishapangma expedition Web pages recorded 1.3 million “impressions,” i.e., viewer traffic, the highest ever for MountainZone.

“I think it was very important that we continued to tell the story,” Potterfield said. “We were able to say exactly what happened, and there were still members of the team up on the mountain. People wanted to know what was happening with them. And I think it was a way to mitigate the suffering that tragedy brings.”

That high drama, danger, death and catastrophe get ratings is hardly news in the media industry. It’s as true at the National Geographic as for a Web site for the extreme sports crowd. National Geographic’s ongoing “Congo Trek” expedition, which allows viewers to send messages to the deepest, most remote center of Equitorial Africa, is intended as an attempt by researcher Mike Fay to document conservation efforts in the region. But the dispatches frequently include highlighted references to divebombing monkeys, Pygmy sorcery, poacher encounters and chest-beating gorillas. “We’ve been in a dream world, really----at the expense of being extremely infected in the feet, hands, and legs,” writes Fay to those living, vicariously, through him.

Danger in the untamed world is exactly the point. That’s why they call it an adventure. “These projects are inherently dangerous,” says Blumenfeld. “And because they are inherently dangerous, people are fascinated by them.”

“It’s unpredictable,” says National executive producer Mike Heasley. “Any exploration includes some degree of risk. I’m always saying my prayers, and I’m grateful when everything works out.”


The long distance call I’m expecting is a little late and I’m trying to remember the tale about the 100 monkeys. It’s a metaphor about personal activism, about how one monkey gets another monkey to start banging the coconut, and before you know it, 10 monkeys are drumming away, and so on.

Then the phone rings.

“This is Mike Fay,” says the rough but clear voice through the phone receiver. “I’m in the middle of the northern Congo right now.”
This is the long distance call, goes the song in the back of my head.

At the receiving end of the long-distance phone call is myself in a cube farm, my rag-and-bone shop of wall hangings serving as windows to remind myself of my past, and to jog ideas forward. I’m surrounded by other human search engines, who are in their own geometric cubes, scanning the World Wide Web. This is our office outpost in Boston; in itself a tangled Web of civilization, sliced and diced, mulch of history piled upon itself, brick by brick, sod by sod, leaf layers and the refuse of subway tickets and discarded Dunkin’ Donut containers. Needham, Mass., is just one twisted thicket for technological man, one end of a long march of fence posts and railroad lines and highways and fiber-optic facilities running east to Eureka, Calif., the furthest West you can get in the 48 states. There’s also a lot of clear-cutting of Redwood groves going on there.

Between us: ocean, air and a curtain of jungle so impenetrable civilization took this long just to crack it open with a mere beam of digits. Fay and I are bound by satellites, by connect-o-dots of digitized sound. I’d originally cracked through the jungle curtain with a brief a note by using an Iridium satellite pager, and now he’s responding with another satellite system, called Inmarsat-B, which is better for voice communication. The hand-held phone Fay is using weighs less than one-half kilogram, pretty handy when you are paying pygmies to lug, among other things, 16,800 AA batteries into deepest, greenest Africa.

These are days of miracles and wonder.

“I’ve just crossed the most difficult part of the journey,” says Fay, who is a researcher for the Wildlife Conservation Society on assignment for National (www.nationalgeographic/congotrek). He’s trekked 700 miles into the Congo, and for the last 300 or so of those he’s been followed by a dozen or so African pygmies and a couple of tech and research assistants.

“The place we’ve come through was kind of weird,” he says. “Some of it was savanna, but mostly it was just forest.

“This is certainly the first phone call made from this river.”

The thing is this, while this long distance call is phantasmagorically strange, it was pretty easy to make. To dial out for pizza at our Boston outpost takes the following muscular movements: pick up the phone, hit nine, dial the number, which takes a foxtrot of fingertip decisions, and then speak when the connection is made. So that’s six muscular motions, including the energy it takes to type seven digits and then speak your native tongue. Now, assuming I’m online, I can reach our man in the Congo by dialing into the browser, clicking on the “country” dialed from, clicking on “send satellite message,” typing in the 12-digit pager number, then a 120-character message, then click. So by the same method that’s a similar number of actions. Don’t ask me how to make a plain phone call to the Congo. What’s the area code for the Kandeko River megatransect, anyway?

You could tell the operators standing by that Fay was in the section of the jungle called Lengoue. If they happened to be good with Global Positioning Satellites, he’s at about 0 (degrees) 40’ N, 16(degrees) 4’ E, probably hacking his way through a huge flood plain covered with the type of jungle that inspired “The Lost World.” Fay and his party have gone far with few to reach the many. As he states on the Congo Trek opening page, dated, Sept. 20, 1999: “We are trying to reach the hundreds of millions, to let them see what’s out there, to find out what the issues are, to find out how they can make a difference.” If the operators standing by were just a little more patient, they could get to know the area more easily once the explorer gets back and “geo-references” the entire journey; that is, every inch, every monkey, every giant primitive leaf.
The conservationist has striven to create protected areas in the Congo, but in this case he’s talking about a virtual national park.

“When I get back I plan on maintaining a Web site that will take every image, every piece of data that I have, indicating where I was and what time, for the entire trip, so they can locate it on a map and experience it, follow the whole trip, in an interactive way,” he says. “I pull out the video camera maybe 50 times a day. As I’m walking I’m carrying a notebook and we are pulling a string along the entire way to record kilometer blocks of the transect. We have a GPS getting the location, a fix every 20 seconds, a complete track of exactly where we were. So some day people can go to the site and ask the database, ‘Show me elephant dung at a 12-kilometer length of the transect,’ and they will be able to see exactly what I saw in real-time.”

Fay, of course, has no idea what’s appearing about his adventure on the National Geographic Web site, except for the essence of the text that he sends in. He’s recording the jungle for cyberspace, but he’s too mobile to go online. And the “reader’s respond”-style e-mail program he’d planned is also experiencing glitches. So during this long-distance call, he asks questions about the political campaign in the U.S. and I tell him about the upcoming Super Bowl. I get the sense, or maybe he almost plain comes out and says, that it feels good to hear voices from the civilized world.

Consider a day in his life. He’s out there with a research assistant, a tech guy, who I’m sure are plenty good company, and then a whole bunch of pygmies. I’ve interviewed a lot of people on the phone over the years, but I never felt such a strong insistence by the source to keep the conversation going. How many people from the “world” has he heard from? “Over the weeks?” he pauses to think. “Not too many people.”

The long-distance call gets quiet. A one-year walk through the jungle sounds like lonely work. Civilization is clear-cutting faster than he can stretch a string across each kilometer. He helped to create Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, where most of the trek takes place, and there are now several roads and a railroad track leading in all directions. The most immediate audience he’s trying to reach on a daily basis, the pygmies, just aren’t getting worried enough, and the Golden Spike of civilization is barking at his heels.

“You are never going to convince a pygmy that logging is bad,” he says. “We came to a logging road and they were so excited. They had never seen a road before. They think the roads are good, logging is good, the towns are good. What’s really striking in their minds are the strange houses they see and the girls they almost got.”
Indeed, for this particular group of pygmies, who have never been more than 15 miles from home, the journey is a kind of Lewis & Clark event in their history. Such virtual adventures are a two-way street. While Fay goes deeper into a strange land where his exotic-looking travelling companions break into aboriginal dance every five or so days, the pygmies are moving outward, toward the land of the supernatural beings. When they reach a small village, their eyes catch fire, like country boys seeing the lights of New York City for the very first time.

They call Fay and his team “Nzambi.”

“It’s their term for Gods,” he says. “On days we have to arrange to get our supplies, we give the airplane the GPS location and then direct the group to a certain clearing. The plane flies overhead right where we came out of the woods, and the supplies drop out of the sky. The pygmies really get excited at this. They really believe we are gods.”
But Fay says once you penetrate the language barrier, there’s little difference between a pygmy and a “Nzambi.” They, too, are driven to record and memorize each and every tree, as if mapping out this Eden were as basic and important as being fruitful and multiplying.

“These pygmies are incredibly good at memorizing things,” Fay says. “One guy is a botanist. He knows every tree in the forest. He could tell you which animal eats which bark, and they all seem to have encyclopedic memories of everything they have seen on this trip. They remember every bush, every stone.”
Ah, but would they be able to find the spot in the jungle when Fay commits his research to cyberspace?

“If they can get through the hell hole we came through, they can certainly navigate the Internet,” he responds.

The phone call eventually ends and I strain my brain to remember the lines to a Paul Simon song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” from “Graceland.” Something about these being “days of miracles and wonder. This is the long distance call.” Eventually, I have to look it up. Part of it goes:

“And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires …”

Feeling pretty Nzambi, I return to my search engines, looking for the name of local trash incinerator that spews foul-smelling stuff in my suburban jungle north of Boston. I look up brainy environmental Web sites and send cosmic Nzambi-fied e-mail to everyone I know. Eventually, I calm down. Fortunately, remnants from that brief age of inspiration remain. I left a Post-It Note to list every save-the-rainforest-site that I could find. Some friends e-mailed responses in prose to rival William Blake, as if the flame of the pygmy fire dance had touched them, too. Ten days later, I send another Iridium message to Fay: “Hey Mike, Doug at Access. Hope all is well. Rams won Super B. McCain has Bush on the run. Keep the faith, please.”

Such is the true rate of change. I feel like the second of 100 monkeys.