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From the Print Edition, March 2002
Scrambling up the Tree
By Dan Koeppel

It's all about the rock at Joshua Tree National Park, America's best climbing classroom.

The impulse to scale sheer rock is usually explained in fairly lofty terms—mental and physical challenge, an enduring human drive to conquer all that is tall, beautiful, and forbidding. But climbing instructor Don Reid distills the draw much more simply and profoundly: "Sunny rock," he says, "is the place to be."

And there's no place in the country where you can more reliably find sunny rock than in California's Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree, located in the desert just east of Palm Springs, is rain-free an average of 358 days a year and cool enough for climbing from late September through May.

The park's convenience is as impressive as its weather: This 794,000-acre [321,320-hectare] playground lies just a few hours' drive from the Los Angeles airport. But neither of those facts fully explains why it is one of the world's top climbing venues.

The truth is, it's all about the rock. Huge formations of Pinto gneiss and bumpy monzogranite—100 million years in the making—create limitless climbing possibilities in a stunning high-desert landscape dotted with the area's namesake yuccas.

There are more than 4,000 established routes, which attract everyone from masters such as Reid to relative amateurs such as myself and the other 11 students in Reid's one-day introduction-to-climbing class.

* * * *

We all gathered on a chilly October morning at the foot of Turtle Rock, a classic climbing classroom roughly as big as an oversize supermarket, which by itself boasts 23 climbing routes. As we sipped coffee, Reid helped us don harnesses, tie knots, and generally prepare to enter the rarefied world of vertical cliffs—and live to tell about it.

Reid resembles a skinny, superfit Neil Young. A highly regarded climbing authority, he is the author of five books on Yosemite's walls. The chance to learn from the best was reason enough to join the class. But the biggest pull was the desert—I needed to be outside.

* * * *

Reid's plan was for us to spend the morning bouldering, then move on to more vertiginous climbing after lunch. Bouldering keeps you close to the ground, so you don't need the protection of harness and rope.

As he and his teaching partner, Art Penson, explained, when you fall, a climbing buddy guides your downward-accelerating body toward a thick hunk of foam below. This is not supposed to hurt.

The force with which I hit the foam—and hit it again, and again, and again—may have been attributable to the fact that I outweighed my spotter, Bettie, by 80 pounds [36 kilograms]. Bettie did better. Actually, Bettie did much better.

I reasoned that it must be her height: Bettie is tall, with long legs—the hand- and footholds simply came more readily to her. "I'm too short," I griped. "Some of the best climbers are hobbits," retorted Penson.

Besides, we were learning that climbing is as much analytical as gymnastic. "Read the rocks," Reid said. "That's the fun and curious game." This calculus is so central to bouldering that each rock is called a "problem." Find the solution, and you're on your way.

* * * *

Toward the end of the day, we told Reid we'd be practicing in the climbing gym later in the week. "Don't stay away from the real rock for too long," he said.

Ongoing practice on living granite, under the sky and not a roof, was the only way to improve, he seemed to say—maybe even the only way to live: "Surrender the idea that we're just built to walk around on our feet," Reid said. "Then you'll understand."

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  The Life
X Marked the Spot
Hunting Pirate Treasure off Africa
By Paul Perry

On a remote pirate island, a smiling Jolly Roger can lead you astray, or to treasure—or both.

It was a sultry June day, but none of us noticed the heat and moisture that had swept off the Indian Ocean and built up over us. Instead, we were bending over a tombstone in a cemetery on the tiny, knife-shaped island of Sainte Marie, just a couple of miles from Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa.

There were six of us gathered around the impressive stone rectangle, which lay flat on the ground, and we were gazing into the face of the happiest Jolly Roger I had ever seen. Chiseled into the granite, he had eyes as wide as full moons, and his mouth was a sliver of the moon laid sideways to make a smile. He had chubby cheeks and a jack-o'-lantern's triangular nose.

The skull rested atop crossed bones with tiny spirits moving through them. Two members of our group were down on their knees, examining these markings very carefully. One was my 16-year-old son, Ben. The other was Warren Getler, a man who uses advanced sonic-imaging technology to find buried treasure.

Most of the time, Getler, who works for a company called Witten Technologies in Washington, D.C., is your standard buttoned-down business type. Out here on the edge of the world, though, Getler was letting his true self show.

He is a devotee of an obscure historical theory, one contending that treasure has been stashed around the world by pirates affiliated with Freemasons, the mysterious fraternal order that was started by stonemasons in medieval Europe.

The handful of historians who have studied the subject believe that some pirates used elaborate Masonic symbols and signposts to record the locations of buried treasure. Ipso facto, if you can unravel the Masons' intricate secret language, you may be able to plot a pathway to buried booty.

Our group was on Sainte Marie to participate in a survey expedition with Barry Clifford, the noted Cape Cod-based pirate-ship hunter. On a January trip to the island, he had found the wreck of Captain Kidd's flagship, the Adventure Galley. Now he was back to excavate the site.

Mapping the ship's remains, which had been covered by seafloor sediments, was the job of Getler and a team from Witten; I was there to cover the project. I'd brought my son along because � well, who wouldn't bring his son to such a place? Sainte Marie was a true pirate island, complete with sunken ships and rumors of buried treasure. And here we were in an old pirate graveyard, staring at something that might just turn rumor into reality.

* * * *

Between 1690 and 1722, hundreds of pirates considered Sainte Marie their home. They created a society here, electing their leaders by direct popular vote; they built houses, drank rum to excess, and lived among the natives, most of the time in peace. And of course they buried booty, plenty of gold and gems, especially during bouts of malaria, when they were too weak to fend off thieves.

* * * *

Although most of my time on Sainte Marie was spent working with Clifford's team as they dove on the Adventure Galley, sometimes I surrendered to restlessness and set out to explore on my own. It was on one such foray that I had discovered the cemetery in the island's lush interior.

I quickly became engrossed with taking pictures of some of the gravestones. Later, when I showed a photo of one of them to Getler, he got an excited look, like someone experiencing a mild electric shock. He called a friend in Arkansas—the amateur historian Bob Brewer, who is cowriting a book with Getler on the Masonic network of buried treasure—and told him about the tombstone.

We then sent Brewer a copy of the photo via a satellite hookup. It was definitely Masonic, Brewer told us after he'd seen the picture. He called the tombstone a "waybill," a coded pictograph used by the symbol-savvy pirates to point the way to a treasure site or another map. Sometimes there could be several waybills en route to a treasure.

As Brewer talked, I imagined following Masonic clues halfway around the world—only to find a hole at the end where someone had dug up a treasure before me.

A day later, Ben and I joined Getler and three other members of the Clifford expedition and headed off to the cemetery. And so the six of us came to be gathered around the gravestone, which was inscribed with the name Josephe Pierre Lechartier, the dates of his life, and the phrase "passersby pray for him" in French.

The smiling Jolly Roger carved into the granite was a symbol of Masonry as well as one of piracy, Getler said. He translated the name of the interred as "Joe the Mapmaker" and considered it written proof that we were on to something.

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  The Legend of Heavy D & the Boys
In the Field With an Afghan Warlord
By Robert Young Pelton

Heavy D is General Dostum, Afghanistan's most feared commander. The boys are the elite U.S. Special Forces who rode (on horseback when necessary), lived, and fought with his troops as they liberated northern Afghanistan. Robert Young Pelton, the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places, reports on the odd-couple alliance that routed the Taliban, on the bloody prison uprising at Qala Jangi, and on his incredible encounter with American Taliban John Walker Lindh.

The Regulators flew in from Uzbekistan at night on a blacked-out Chinook helicopter and landed near a mud-walled compound in a remote valley in northern Afghanistan. As they began unloading their gear, they were met by Afghans in turbans, their faces wrapped. "It was like that scene in Close Encounters where the aliens meet humans for the first time," one soldier says later. "Or maybe that scene in Star Wars: These sand people started jabbering in a language we had never heard."

The Americans shouldered their hundred-pound [45-kilogram] rucksacks while the Afghans hefted the rest of the equipment. The gear seemed to float from the landing site under a procession of brown blankets and turbans.

The next morning, about 60 Afghan cavalry came thundering into the compound. Ten minutes later, another 40 riders galloped up. General Abdul Rashid Dostum had arrived.

"Our mission was simple," another soldier says. "Support Dostum. They told us, ‘If Dostum wants to go to Kabul, you are going with him. If he wants to take over the whole country, do it. If he goes off the deep end and starts whacking people, advise higher up and maybe pull out.' This was the most incredibly open mission we have ever done."

Before heading in-country, the soldiers had been briefed only vaguely about Dostum. They'd heard rumors that he was 80 years old, that he didn't have use of his right arm. And they'd been told that he was the most powerful anti-Taliban leader in northern Afghanistan.

"I thought the guy was this ruthless warlord," one soldier says. "I assumed he was fricking mean, hard. You know: You better not show any weakness. Then he rides up on horseback with one pant leg untucked, looking like Bluto."

Dostum dismounted and shook everyone's hand, then sat on a mound covered with carpets. He talked for half an hour.

Dostum's strategy was now their strategy: to ride roughshod over Taliban positions up the Darra-e Suf Valley, roll over the Tingi Pass in the Alborz Range, then sweep north across the plains and liberate Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan's second largest city.

When the council broke up, Dostum stood and motioned toward the horses. America's finest were about to fight their first war on horseback in more than a hundred years.

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Behind the Article: Photos, Audio, More
Go behind the scenes of the Adventure assignment that took writer Robert Young Pelton inside Green Beret operations and face-to-face with John Walker Lindh.


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  Riders of the Lost Plateau
Snowboarding Montana's Beartooth Mountains
By John Vaillant

Deep into the tabula rasa backcountry beyond Cooke City, Montana, three snowboarders and a skier test their skills against the purest lines on the wildest mountains in the heart of the continent: the Beartooth Plateau.

Dislodged by a patient combination of gravity, frost action, and time, the rock tumbled down the southwest couloir of Granite Peak at a speed approaching terminal velocity. John Griber and Pete Costain, both expert backcountry snowboarders, heard it coming, and Griber gave the standard mountaineer's alarm: "ROOOOOCK!"

Then the two scrambled for cover, spidering with their crampons and ice axes across the avalanche-scoured surface of the 1,500-foot-high [457-meter-high] couloir. The fist-size rock caromed wildly off the chute's narrow walls. The danger lay not so much in its crushing power as in its similarity to a piece of shrapnel, sharp-edged and impartial.

Photographer Scott Spiker and I, farther down the couloir, leaned in, then watched as the rock plunged past. Falling rocks are a well-documented climbing hazard, but in southern Montana's Beartooth Mountains, the risk is more a rule than an exception.

The daunting peaks, jagged arêtes, and talus-strewn plateaus of the Beartooths are composed of some of the most ancient exposed rocks on Earth: more than three billion years old. It looks as if it would take little more than a strong breeze or a good push to topple some of their more prominent features.

Still, the range represents the country's largest contiguous landmass over 10,000 feet [3,048 meters]. It contains 69 of Montana's 100 tallest peaks; 29 of these are over 12,000 feet [3,658 meters] high, and Granite Peak is only a foot shy of 12,800 [3,901 meters]. These dozens of 10,000-footers awaiting just beyond the motels and lodges of Cooke City, Montana, make the place a haven for backcountry skiers and riders at any skill level from intermediate on up.

In Cooke City, a former mining town just east of Yellowstone National Park on the southern edge of the Beartooth Plateau, you can hire a guide (for day trips only), or, for 15 bucks [U.S. dollars], you can score a snowmobile ride to Mount Henderson or Crown Butte. From there, you can coast all the way back to town for a hot shower and a mug of Moose Drool, a local brew.

Tempting as such comforts are, though, I had something a bit more ambitious in mind. Playing as virtues the plateau's winter inaccessibility—and the resultant abundance of virgin, never-before-boarded terrain—I had persuaded a couple of pros to accompany me on a traverse deep beyond day-trip range.

John Griber is a member of the North Face Snowboarding Team; Pete Costain has been similarly sponsored for years. For a resort-riding intermediate like me, spending a few days in clinic with these guys—riding a plank of slippery fiberglass through the wildest mountains in the heart of the continent—was an irresistible opportunity to be enlightened, humiliated, or both.

* * * *

In early April, we set out to cross the plateau from Cooke City (winter population: 60) to Alpine (winter population: 2). Ice and avalanches of snow were regularly joining the rocks on their one-way trips toward new angles of repose. The winter had been a strange one; the snowpack was only 40 percent of its normal depth.

Making matters worse was something known in local avalanche circles as the October Layer—an early season stratum of poorly bonding crystals called depth hoar that made an unstable foundation for everything that fell after.

There was no question it was a dicier than average year—one of the worst in a decade—but all three of my companions were well versed in avalanche avoidance (and recovery). We decided to go ahead.

Get the full story and an Adventure Guide to the Beartooths in the March 2002 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today.)

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March 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Afghan Warlord | Colossal Cave | Property-Rights Forum | Antigua Travel Guide Gear Guide: Wool | Gear Guide: Daypacks

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