Monday, July 6, 2009

The day I almost died

Member of the Belize rescue team

There I was, caught underneath a tree in a white-water river in Belize, thinking,
“This is a really stupid way to die.” However, because of the training my father, a 747 captain, had instilled in me growing up I instinctively surrounded myself with a “bubble of calm.” I had learned over the years that whenever emergencies or tough situations arise to slow things down in my head and try to assess the situation.

A crowded field heads into dangerous rapids

Nevertheless, I knew I had about a minute-and-a-half of available oxygen before I’d black out and drown. Luckily for me, that never happened. I was able to shift the boat that was on top of me, free myself from the maze of tree limbs that were holding me captive, and swim toward the light. When I surfaced the first image that greeted me was my friend and teammate Bo Parfet hanging onto a branch against the surging river. He had come up about a minute earlier.

Perhaps too much testosterone and not enough brains

It was day two of the La Ruta Maya, a grueling, multi-day canoe race, and we were now last among a field of just under a hundred vessels. Though we didn’t win, this was only the first of many adventures that Bo and I would share together. Often, the kind of life-threatening incident that we’d just experienced deeply affects a person’s sense of fearlessness, and I wondered how it was going to affect Bo. You see, in my mind he was still untested. I did not know then that, during the next few years, he would witness a death on Mount Everest and have several brushes with it himself in some of the world’s most exotic locations.
As for me, I have thought about that day often and consider myself lucky. The scenario could have been drastically different, and I don’t know if I would have survived. I have always prided myself on being risk adverse and safe in the field, but good explorers or adventurers are able to sense dangerous situations, unlike I had done on that day on the river in Belize.

A widely used phrase, though somewhat cliché, is that the mark of real character in a climber is not how he stands on the summit while holding a flag, but how he pulls himself out of an icy crevasse. Expeditions have a way of revealing a person's true personality, mostly because teammates spend so much time together in close quarters and often in trying conditions, that all pretenses quickly vanish. No one should ever underestimate the value of being a good teammate. A group that works cohesively together will triumph over individual effort every time.

Bo Parfet and author at Everest base camp

The easy road is safe and predictable, however sticking your neck out on an expedition or trying to extend yourself in any field of endeavor is difficult, especially when you run the risk of looking foolish if you fail. Still, you might as well face the fact that if you’re going to be a leader, you will undoubtedly fail at some point. The important thing is to learn from experience, and also to understand that on those occasions when you put every ounce of energy and passion into achieving something, the exhilaration of realizing your ambition will be well worth the fight. If I had died under a tree in a river in Belize I would have been pretty embarrassed ( in the after-life), but I was able to stay calm and as a result learned an invaluable lesson. It is important to remind yourself that though every person lives, it takes a person with true courage to experience failure and continue to live outside their comfort zone.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Virtues of a Birding Life List

A Life List is a written record of all the species you have ever seen. These are often created by bird-watchers (or birders). Birding is a good way to start your list as it is focused and can be easily picked up and shared.
My friend, John Leo, a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report, and avid birder, once told me that keeping a bird life list is a hobby where you collect but you don’t actually take anything.

It is free and you can do it anytime and anywhere in the world.
It is up to you what you want your life list to be. It can be as comprehensive as a journal entry of all noticeable features of the bird and the vocalizations created by the species or it can be as simple one sentence explanation of the basic what, where and when.

Bird watching is an extremely personal passion and often the birders are as colorful as the species they seek.

Birders are proud of their Life List and you don’t have to be professional birder to achieve birding glory. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker, the Holy Grail of prized birds to find – even Teddy Roosevelt looked for it – was thought to be an extinct species. But credible sources say it was rediscovered in Arkansas by Bobby Harrison, an amateur enthusiast. Note: If you make a cool find, document it with a high-resolution photograph.
Now, go swiftly!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Natural Bourne Identity- Vanishing Cultures

What makes an expedition memorable is not the primary mission but the people you meet along the way.

When you asked me if I'd spent any time with indigenous, native or primitive people my head started spinning thinking about all the years of travel and the dozens and dozens of expeditions I have participated in.

One of the intense pleasures of my travels has been the unique opportunities that I have had to live amongst those whose lives at first glance were so much different than mine. It is privilege every time I get the chance to peer into the world of native people as they are living looking glasses into our cultural past. I like to think of them as those who have not forgotten the old ways. Their deep set beliefs, ethics and customs unify and strengthen their families and communities and engender a genuine curiosity and hospitality toward visitors.
Most recently while filming with the BBC One and Discovery Science I lived and traveled with the Afar people of Ethiopia. They are an interesting group as they struggle to hold onto their old ways amidst a modern world closing in on them. You may know their name as they are a tribe notorious for castrating their enemies – I tried to view this reputation as core to some of their values. e.g. revenge, respect and honor. With that in mind, in the month I spent with them, I learned many lessons of manners and etiquette far quicker than I would have in any posh English Boarding school.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish native, indigenous and primitive people as most groups have a combination of all three. My experience of these people scans the world and their open disposition and customs continue to inspire me. I have lived and traveled with many Chagga and Massai people of East Africa, several of which are now my friends (in fact I will be spending part of January 2009 with a good Chagga friend).
More than once, I trekked the deserts and drank tea with nomadic Berber and Bedouin in Morocco.
I have learned to be ingenuous with ice from the Eskimo of Alaska and the Inuit of Canada. While tagging Jaguars in Mexico I navigated the jungle with ancestors of the Mayan and Aztec. With native Shongaans as my guides, I have tracked wildlife and observed the intricacies of the ecosystem in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. I have chewed on coca leaves and shared stories with the Quechua and Aymara Indian tribes in the Colca Canyon of Peru. I gathered Yak dung for a stove with the Nepalese Sherpa’s. I foraged for food and spoke of the Rainbow Serpent with the aborigine of Australia.

In the 21st century we live in a world of vanishing cultures and as explorers it is our inherent duty to understand, share and sometimes preserve their traditions. We share with these cultures a passion for story telling, team work and camaraderie - and as such we keep their worlds alive. . I have often thought about this tradition and I usually envision one person standing over a fire to a spellbound audience telling a tale of lands far away. No matter what the language is it is generally started with the first sentence “you'll never guess what happened to me “or “you’ll never believe what's on the other side of that hill.”

These are times when people are becoming more aware of the need to promote and preserve indigenous cultures of specific localities and communities. Although we may look at these past cultures as primitive - or in the case of head hunters barbaric,a wisdom for mental wellbeing and a code to live one’s life by sometimes surfaces from apparently unlikely sources.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kilimanjaro : Mountain of Dreams

Mt. Kilimanjaro has had a magical appeal for me ever since I climbed it as an eleven-year-old with my father, even though it was an awful experience. We did everything the wrong way. There were no training hikes to prepare us for the grueling physical challenges of the mountain and no guides to show us the most effective way to the summit. We didn’t bring enough water and our cotton clothing was completely inappropriate for both the tropical conditions at the mountain’s base and the frigid glacier at its highest elevations.

Still, we made it to the summit, 19,345 feet above the East African plain and the view from the top of Africa’s highest mountain is something I will never forget. Kilimanjaro was the first mountain I ever climbed and ignited my lifelong interest in exploration.

Over the next 35+ years returned twelve times since then and have discovered that for those who try to climb Kili, the mountain is almost always a metaphor. You climb it not just to reach the summit, but to prove something to yourself. This was particularly true on one particular expedition, in January 2005, when I led three to the summit.

For Keech Coombe, Kili was a physical test. In February 2004, this athletic twenty-seven-year-old broke her neck in a horrific skiing accident that nearly killed her. She spent weeks in the hospital with a halo device attached to her head and upper vertebrae – her doctors were uncertain if she would ever be able to walk again. Miraculously, Keech made a nearly complete recovery. But could she return to her pre-accident form? The mountain would give the answer.

For Alan Valdez, it offered a shot at redemption. A fifty-five-year-old Wall Street trader, Alan had tried to climb Kilimanjaro in 1980 but ignored the warning of “pole, pole” (pronounced “poh-lay, poh-lay,” it means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili) and tried to reach the summit in a mere three days. Suffering from altitude sickness at 16,000 feet, he’d had to retreat to lower elevations.

For Kay Foster, Kilimanjaro represented a new lease on life. A sophisticated older woman who lives on Beekman Place, Kay had admitted to me privately that she had not emerged from the funk that had engulfed her ever since her husband had passed away several years earlier. The idea of climbing Africa’s highest mountain seemed to light a fire inside her.

As we set off for Tanzania, Kilimanjaro had unexpectedly become a metaphor for me, too. Bedridden with the flu for three weeks prior to departure, for the first time in my life I had serious doubts about my own ability to lead a climb. Kili would be a test with the outcome very much in question.

After two days of rest and acclimatization in Arusha, a village at the foot of Kilimanjaro, we headed to the Machame Gate (at 5,900 feet), where we would begin the climb. We could see Kilimanjaro rising majestically out of the African plain, a sight unmatched anywhere on the globe because Kili is not part of a mountain range: it is the highest freestanding mountain in the world.

A tropical rainforest circles Kilimanjaro at its base, so for most of our first day we hiked under a canopy of high trees, moss-coated vines and ferns. The calls of the colobus monkeys that make the forest their home filled the air. After nine hours, we emerged from the rain forest into a dryer, savannah-like part of the mountain, where we made camp for the night, just below 10,000 feet. Waiting for dinner in our small mess tent, everyone looked exhausted. Kay arrived much later than the others, looking pale and very weak. Privately, Keech and I worried that she would never be able to reach the summit.

Dinner was served and we devoured the high carbohydrate meal of rice, pasta, bread, chicken and vegetables (typically hikers burn 3,500 to 10,000 calories per day). As we ate, we shared stories of turning points in ours lives, past romances and earlier memorable journeys.

We awoke the next morning before sunrise to a frigid chill in the air and set out on the next leg of our journey. Trekking through heath and moorland, our goal was Shira Camp, located on a spectacular high ridge at 12,600 feet. But a lightning storm suddenly materialized and we were showered with hail that soon turned to frozen rain. Rivers of water were splashing down the trail at our feet.

We slogged our way up, getting soaked and muddy in the process. There was little relief when we reached Shira – our tents seemed precariously placed on the ground and the porters (led by our guide, Jonas Rutta) feverishly dug drainage trenches to route the water away. As we huddled in the mess tent for dinner, everyone looked worried.

We awoke to find the sun shining. Our relief was palpable, because ahead of us lay a difficult day; we would hike across the high desert to 15,000 feet, then descend to Barranco Camp at 12,750 feet. This would allow our bodies to acclimatize to the higher elevation before we made our push to the summit.

As we set out that morning, we experienced the wrath of Kili’s fast-changing weather as the sunshine turned to rain, slowing our pace and wreaking havoc on our fragile emotions. Descending to Barranco, we saw a thunderstorm of frightening proportions up on the summit--a grim coda to a day that had been physically and emotionally exhausting.

Keech seemed to be doing well – she had experienced no physical difficulties so far, and I watched with amusement as she taught the porters how to properly toss a Nerf football. Alan appeared strong and relaxed because he had learned “pole, pole” as his mountain mantra. Kay, on the other hand, though a dogged optimist, had been struggling. The climb was taking an unmistakable physical toll on her. And the most difficult part was still ahead.

The next day, we ascended the Great Baranco Valley and reached our camp at Lava Tower, a two hundred foot column of orange volcanic rock at 15,000 feet, in the early afternoon. With some time on our hands, Keech and I decided to do something we hadn’t done in five days – bathe. Isolated behind a outcropping of rocks, a stream and waterfall had sprung to life from the recent rainfalls. Finding separate, secluded terraces, we stripped off our dirty hiking clothes and plunged naked into the frigid waters for the briefest of exhilarating baths.

The next morning our tents were covered in ice – it had snowed throughout the night. This day would be an easy one, a short climb to 16,500 feet to our next camp, at Arrow Glacier, our introduction to the famous glaciers that cover the uppermost slopes of Kili. There, the sound of distant avalanches made everyone uneasy. Our party was experiencing the first real effects of high altitude: appetites had diminished, and several of us were suffering from headaches.

As we awoke for our seventh day on the mountain, we all knew that the most difficult leg of the climb lay ahead. The Western Breach rises sharply up to the rim of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic crater, an intimidating scramble of rocky crags and steep drop offs. So we set off and slowly, winding our way up the steep path. A difficult climb in normal conditions, the route was now covered in ice, so Jonas and I had to painstakingly cut steps into the frozen surface with an axe.

The pace of the climb slowed and the group spread out. At lunch, we waited over an hour for Kay, but she never showed up. Knowing Jonas had dropped back to join her, we pressed on, up a series of rock scrambles, where we struggled to pull our bodies through narrow canyons and up and over large boulders. Our normal chatter was reduced to breathing and grunting. After a series of false ridge tops, we emerged onto the flat terrain of Kili’s crater, 18,750 feet above sea level and resembling an arctic moonscape –accented by the huge, indigo-streaked glaciers to the west. Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the crater rim and the summit of Kili, was visible a mere 600 feet above us.

Keech and Alan arrived but at 5 p.m., there was still no sign of Kay. Then, an hour later, we were astonished to see her stumble up over the ridge, barely able to walk and completely spent. The most difficult part of the climb was behind us.

We awoke the next morning at 5 and left camp at 6. We watched as the sun rose into a cloudless blue sky. The weather gods of Kili were smiling. For two hours we ascended a steep, winding trail, up a series of rocky switchbacks. No one spoke, and there was no resting on this last push to the summit. We finally emerged onto a slightly-graded plateau and crossed a few hundred yards to a modest wooden sign, which marked the highest point on the African continent. Success.

I looked at Keech and saw that tears of joy had welled up in her eyes. Exactly one year before she had had her devastating skiing accident. But here she was on the summit of Kili. Alan was simply ecstatic – a twenty-five-year-old monkey was finally off his back. He hugged Jonas and, grinning, repeated for the last time the mantra that had gotten him there: “pole, pole.” Kay was the last to arrive, staggering and exhausted. I told her to take in the view, smell the air, and remember the moment. It would be with her for the rest of her life.

I took in the view with her. I had seen it before, the vast African plain stretching for hundreds of miles, Mount Meru to the west and beyond it, the Serengeti Plain. I glanced over at Keech quietly sobbing to herself, at Alan beaming and at Kay taking in the roof of Africa. For all of us, Kilimanjaro had truly become a mountain of dreams…fulfilled.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Central Park is wilder than you think

As a New Yorker I've always prided myself on the disposition of the people who live in “the city”.
New Yorkers come from 188 different nations, they are strong-willed, exotic, and most importantly they are survivors.

It is only fitting that the Park (Central Park) is a reflection of the temperament of the city that surrounds this 800 plus acres. If I had to use only one word to describe Central Park it would be wild.

Wild might seem like an odd choice of words considering that Central Park is a man-made park in which almost all of the trees , rocks and ponds were all placed there in the 1860’s. So considering its artificial nature one wouldn’t expect that much wildlife to be happening within its borders.

Central Park is a bird watchers paradise as there are approximately 275 species of birds that stop through this large oasis of green and ponds. Apparently Central Park is a migratory funnel for birds flying north and south during the spring and fall.
The regular birders that tramp in the center of the park are often as colorful and interesting as the species they stalk.

Central Park also includes the most famous red tailed hawk in the world called Pale Male. It seems like this red tailed hawk has roosted with his family on the upper floors of a posh Fifth Avenue co-op .
Apparently the residents of this building do not appreciate the majesty of Pale Male or the fact that he drops parts of rat remains (which he feeds upon) on the sidewalk below Some of its tony residents have lobbied for the removal of his nest.

Photo courtesy of

I always figured that if I were lucky enough to be chosen from millions of windowsills in Manhattan to have such a magnificent creature build a nest that I would be truly blessed and certainly could put up with a few undesirable gifts from above.
As you can imagine the regular birders that tramp in the center of the park are often as colorful as interesting as the species they stalk.

Other birds that happens the park include Herron's wild pheasant’s, owls falcons and egrets.
A bird that is most closely associated with Central Park and New York City is the pigeon. We New Yorkers affectionately call pigeons “sky rats” which is not so bad considering we call squirrels rats with bushy tails.

Most of the human residents in NYC have learned to adapt to a fast paced cramped lifestyle. And in turn its wildlife have learned to live with humans. In Central Park the animals tend to be very opportunist and in some cases very clever.

Hals cousin Hank

One of the more interesting non-native animals that have passed through “New York’s backyard” was a 35 pound coyote named Hal who escaped capture for almost a week. I have to admit during his brief habitation I was actually rooting for Hal as the idea of a carnivore roaming the park was quite appealing. I have often thought that a wolf might be even more fun for a few weeks.

Perhaps the most famous urban legend not only for Central Park but for New York City is the tale of alligators living in its sewer system. Believe it or not there is merit to this myth especially during the 20s - 60s when tourists could actually buy alligators in Florida.
What most alligator owners found is that as alligators grow they lose their cuteness. Many either had a “Viking funeral” in the toilet or were released in the New York version of Born Free in one of its many waterways. The largest reported alligator to ever have been caught in New York was 135 pound creature in the 1930s which incidentally was found in a sewer in New York City. As recently as last summer a small alligator was found in the Harlem Meer.

Other New York animal moments in Central Park were as follows, reportedly a French tourist was bitten by a snake in Central Park by a 7 foot Colombian boa constrictor, a woman was bitten by a bat in a taxi cab, and even a small deer was found running through the park.

One of the more interesting experiences that I have had in Central Park was many years ago while I was jogging on the great lawn during a light snowfall. As I was running I heard something peculiar (which is not unusual for New York) and I looked up and saw several parrots sitting in a tree. I thought I had made some extraordinary discovery but after speaking with a park ranger I found out that these Quaker Parrots, sturdy little escapees from Argentina have been nesting there for decades. They survive the winter by sitting on steam vents and warm electrical box’s.

A bit of a quirky fact about Central Park is that the small pond by Belvedere Castle is the only dragonfly preserve in North America. Beneath the waters of this pond are giant snapping turtles which are capable of removing a few fingers or hands if someone were to try to befriend this creature.

In 2004 while I was president of the Explorers club we organized a Bioblitz in Central Park (which is a biological survey done in 24 hours) in which we had 500 student and scientists scouring the park for every possible form of life from grass to ants to the birds that live in trees.
My task was to scuba dive in the Harlem Meer which has a visibility of about 2 inches and who’s bottom is muck of the worst degree .
As you can imagine the spectacle of scuba divers in those algae choked waters would draw a crowd including some of the local media.
Just before I was about to dive one of the local park officials came up to me and whispered in my year if you find any bodies don't bring them up just note their location.

We did not find any bodies but after we analyzed our muck samples we found that we had discovered 202 new forms of life never identified to science.

And finally I leave you with a story of perhaps the two animals who represent the temperament and quirkiness of this city and its park , Silo and Roy two chinstrap penguins that live in the Central Park zoo who are completely devoted to each other and are considered gay. They exhibit what in zoology parlance is called "ecstatic behavior": Only in New York!

The rise of the Jersey Devil-PR stunt or a Mad Hatters tale?

We all know the first rule of PR is to get the public's attention. Few things are quite as intoxicating (especially this time of year) as a good old fashioned urban legend to spawn a thriving industry of websites, books,videos, films, reality shows and TV specials.

Like Big Foot, The Yeti and the Lochness Monster, The Jersey Devil has amassed a culture of obsessive monster hunting groups, regular "sightings", and story telling. The amount of buzz and staying power ol' JD can boast from over the past 250 years or so goes far beyond what any marketing team could ever hope to pull off. But while some monster tales have intentionally been started to attract business, The Jersey Devil may have been born of unfortunate circumstances more than anything.
The story, according to legend, goes something like this. The Jersey Devil, aka the Leeds Devil, is a legendary creature said to inhabit the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. The creature is often drawn or described in folklore as a cloven hoofed flying dragon with blood red eyes.
According to the most popular legend, the Jersey Devil was spawned in the 18th century when Deborah Smith an English immigrant wound up in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey married to a peculiar Mr. Leeds, a rather vain man who wanted many heirs to continue the family name. Consequently, the new wife was continually pregnant. After bearing twelve healthy children, she was dismayed to be pregnant with her thirteenth. She cursed the unborn child, declaring a preference to bear the Devil's child rather than another Leeds. (source: wikipedia).
Apparently, her wish was granted as the new child had cloven hooves, claws, and a tail. The horrific newborn proceeded to eat the other Leeds children and the parents, before escaping through the chimney to begin its reign of terror.
To this day, Jersey Devil sightings have been rampant. In 1909, the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the creature's capture. Not surprisingly the offer resulted in a myriad of hoaxes, including a winged kangaroo. The reward remains available to this day.
However the rise of the Jersey Devil may have more to do with a bad mixture of indigenous animals and mercury poisoning than real monsters in the mist.

During the Revolutionary war era - the time in which we see the first written accounts of the Jersey Devil, the Pine Barrens was an industrial area in which its inhabitants were subjected to many dangerous chemicals and elements,". "For example, the use of lead was very commonplace in their water pipes, utensils and even makeup. We now know that lead damages the brain, lowering IQ and causing learning disabilities and behavioral problems".
"In addition to a proliferation of lead, the Pine Barrens was home to a thriving hat making business during the 1700's," Wiese continues. "Unfortunately, the furriers who made beaver skin hats made use of the chemical Mercury in the process to turn fur into felt. Mercury can cause pronounced mind altering effects. You may have heard the term as crazy as a Mad Hatter - and this is where it evolved from."

"It can also be said that early settlers to the Pine Barrens may well have not been accustomed to wolves, bears, bobcats, badgers, flying squirrels, mountain lions, and bison that inhabited the area at the time. Due to the close proximity to the ocean, the large marshy areas of the barrens is also known to be a somewhat foggy location (which would have been exacerbated due to coal burning and other particulate in the air from the industrial plants). All these details could easily lead to hallucinations that spawned an industry of urban legend.

In conclusion as the tale is related to Mrs. Leeds, a poverty-stricken woman living in isolation with her 12 starving children - when she had a horribly deformed child, which was most likely due to the chemicals mentioned above, superstitious tales were probably started by local townspeople. Couple these with a few mercury infused hallucinations and a star is born.

The post originally appeared on October 2008 on Leber PR's website

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Search of the Rainbow Serpent

The Northern tip of Australia called Arnhem Land is where man first came to this continent from Asia perhaps 50,000 years ago.
It was also the most remote place that I had ever been outside of Antarctica.

The land is very old , the weather quite tropical and it even has a primordial smell to it.
Very few people travel here and even the native aboriginal people who once called this home can no longer be found.

Our mission was to try to find a creature with the jaws of a crocodile, the tongue of a snake and the body of a fish called the Barramundi known to change its sex.


We knew that in order to find this exotic creature we had to leave our western beliefs and ways of thinking behind and try to adopt the complex beliefs in creation, spirits and culture, that gives Australian Aborigines a religion that is distinctly different from any other religion in the world.
When talking about this way of looking at life one cannot begin to understand it without a knowlodge of "dream time".

The term dream time refers to how these ancient people viewed creation and the idea that every object has in their lives.
We theorized that our lair the mythical Rainbow Serpent was an amalgam of many creatures—and one of the oldest told stories in the world.
The mission was to find clues to its origin. Our guide Max Davidson, an inspiration for the movie
“Crocodile Dundee,” led us on an epic journey to one of the most remote places on Earth—Arnhem Land contains hundreds of miles of rock art, it is the largest collection of this type of art in the world, dating back almost 50,000 years ago. Rock art, or petroglyphs, provide insight into the lives of the original inhabitants of Arnhem Land . What we found was remarkable.

From hand prints to animal and human figures, petroglyphs appeared in almost every nook.
It was quite plausible in many cases we were the first westerners to set eyes on some of these drawings since there creation thousand of years ago
Our expedition came to a pinnacle when we found the 15,000 year-old drawing of the Rainbow Serpent. It was huge—far eclipsing any of our previous findings. One can only theorize what people were thinking 15,000 years ago—but the Rainbow Serpent was important enough for society to record it. We believe the legend is an origin story—told from generation to generation in an effort to preserve an understanding of their own creation.