Washington is full of bureaucrats, lawyers, waiters, editors and retirees all dreaming of adventures they would like to have. A few dream of adventures they have already had.
'We came down near Amarillo in a 40-knot gale. The balloon acted like a parachute, dragging us across the countryside. I broke my collarbone and some ribs. The balloon stopped a few feet from the edge of 200-foot drop into a quarry."
And there was that time near El Centro, Calif., when the balloon drifted over the Chocolate Mountains and into Mexico.
"We reached 26,000 feet in an open basket and then started down. We hit the ground with a terrific thud. The co-pilot broke his ankle, and the emergency release went off. It jerked the rope out of my hand. If the rope had been twisted around my wrist, as it sometimes was, it would have ripped my hand off, or it would have taken me to 10,000 feet and let me go."
Kurt Stehling, a scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, began ballooning in the 1960s. (The Navy's research lab gave him free helium if he would take experimental gear up with him, apparently having the good sense not to take up its own.)
In 1964, he flew from Detroit, taking his son along. They opened a bottle of champagne at 10,000 feet -- beneath 30,000 cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen that could have put father and son into orbit -- and dined on a red-checked tablecloth. They also drifted -- boatless -- over Lake Michigan and landed quite by chance in Pittsburgh.
You may have seen Stehling at the Air and Space Museum. He's the balloonist in the film, "To Fly," the man in the costume worn by James Mason in "Journey to the Center of the Earth."
During the centennial of the discovery of helium -- 1868, in case you've forgotten -- the Helium Society of America asked Stehling to do a memorial flight. He left Texas, bound for Alaska... and crash-landed in Nebraska.
Flying in Holland in 1974, Stehling and his passenger, a dog-food manufacturer who had paid for the gas, were blown out over the North Sea. "We encountered a wind storm, which forced us down."
The dog-food manufacturer fretted, understandably, about the lack of a boat. "We hit the water and bounced back into the air," Stehling said, but the balloon veered toward land and creashed into an orchard, flattening a number of saplings. The dog-food manufacturer abandoned ship... and broke both legs.
When Stehling thinks of ballooning, he thinks of "existing in a perfectly quiet medium. You can hear your heart beat, all the sounds of the wind and pigs snuffling at night. There's a marvelous view of the sky. One feels historic -- part of the early aeronauts."
Flying out of Philadelphia, Stehling collected several clotheslines full of clothes with his drag rope, hauled through the Pennsylvania Dutch farm country.Then he... yes... crash-landed in a field of winter wheat.
A farmer came after him with a shotgun. "I told him I was from Washington and that the landing was a special occasion. He became more respectful. I asked him for his address, which he scribbled on a piece of paper. I told him we were going to have a meeting in Washington about the crash landing. Then I dropped a bag of sand and took off."
He says he never flies with his wife. "She thinks ballooning's dangerous."
'What sticks in your mind is the rough stuff: what you found up there and how you handled it."
Sallie Greenwood, climber of rocks and a researcher for National Geographic, found snow and gales on Mount McKinley at 18,000 feet above sea level. Her tent collapsed. For two nights she lay inside, holding it down with fistfuls of nylon, "a tenuous situation at that altitude. If the nylon had ripped..."
Then there was "Peak Communism," 20,000 feet of Realpolitik in the Soviet Union's Tajik Republic. Greenwood answered an ad placed in a climbing magazine by a California woman searching for team members. She trained for six months and flew to Russia with her harness, ropes and carabiners -- but no chalk bag. She made the trek to the base camp at 14,000 feet and the carry-up to Camp One, more than 2,000 feet of near-vertical dirt. "I decided it was too unesthetic and life-endangering. I was too young to die. I told the leader, 'This isn't my mountain.'"
Rock-climbing involves a perpetual balance between the possible and the abysmal. "I'm a conservative climber," she says. That has not kept her off mountains all over America and in Austria, Switzerland and Peru.
She often climbs with Lin Murphy, a lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service and part of the women's team that attempted Dhaulagiri in the Himalayas. They make a good team, part of the balance. Greenwood has longer legs, Murphy greater strength. Murphy uses chalk to improve her grip; Greenwood does not use chalk, objecting to the white tracks left on empty granite.
"Chalk takes the mystery out of a lot of climbs," she says.
"Sally's a purist," says Murphy, a conservationist who brushes the chalk away as she mounts.
Murphy dreams of the Chinese Himalayas; Greenwood still dreams of Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, and the Cascade Range in the Northwest. Last summer they compromised, climbing in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the Sawtooth Mountains, hiking through wilderness with topographical maps in search of climbs that have been made by others.
They've climbed together for five years, a relatively long partnership. They work things out at their own speed, with mutual trust. Sometimes they encounter male climbers surprised to find two women at the base of a far-flung mountain. "They always look around to see where our men are. Then they find out we made the climb, and you can see their minds begin to work: 'Maybe I can climb that...'"
Comparisons between male and female climbers are of no particular interest to them. "Avalanches aren't concerned with equal opportunity," says Greenwood.
A member of Murphy's expedition died in a fall. Both she and Greenwood have had friends who perished on the rock; they have helped rescue many injured climbers. "Dying is part of the equation of climbing," says Greenwood, who thinks that other people -- and the press -- place too much emphasis on the deaths.
She has never fallen, although in the Tetons, in a hurry, she started to rappel without clipping the rope into the carabiner brake-bar. "It would have been a classic accident, the result of carelessness."
Murphy slipped in Bolivia three years ago during a walkout after a successful climb, tumbling 100 feet. She didn't break any bones but still has trouble playing tennis because of the injuries.
The fascination lies in rising, not falling. "You can get to some beautiful places," Murphy says. "It's a nice view," says Greenwood.
'I'm not living, I'm existing. All I ever think about is there -- sitting by the campfire after a hard day, your feet up, drinking a cup of tea."
There is the Canadian wilderness, at 40 degrees below zero. Dave Halsey, a waiter at Friday's in Falls Church, was the first person to cross Canada using canoe, snowshoes and dog sled, a feat of endurance that earned him a book contract and an incurable case of high-risk, low-tech wanderlust.
As a child, Halsey ripped up his copies of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life and saved the articles. By the age of 12 he had extensive files on expeditions and fishing lures. He read Scott, Byrd, Amundson and Ernest Shackleton's Endurance. He dreamed of doing something first in era of expeditionary seconds.
As a student of paleosteology -- prehuman evolutionary states -- at Iowa State University, he conceived the idea of crossing Canada, west to east, by foot, canoe and dog sled, something no one else had done. He dropped out of school and came to Washington to see if National Geographic would help. The Geographic was sufficiently impressed with Halsey's notion and enthusiasm to let him research the trip in the cartography department.
"They thought I'd stay for a couple of weeks. Instead, I went in every day for five months."
The Geographic did help, with film and some logistical support. Halsey advertised for expedition members and found three men willing to pay their own way. Halsey was the youngest -- only 20 -- and the least experienced, but he soon perceived trouble. "One of them wanted to take along his wok." Another wanted to pick fruit in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. In less than a week they deserted, telling Halsey that his trip was suicidal, and took their gear with them.
Halsey walked across the central plateau, in 110-degree heat, alone, without a tent. He didn't mind. He wanted to travel "as the man in the street might travel," without a lot of high-tech paraphernalia.He was met by a photographer, Peter Souchuk, who had read about Halsey and then driven up from Iowa to find him; the strangers became partners.
They almost perished canoeing the rapids of the Athabasca River in Alberta. "We turned over three times in three consecutive days." They lost their food; their boots were torn from their feet by the current. It started to snow. Halsey crawled ashore and attempted to cover himself with dirt and leaves, an instinctive reaction to hypothermia.
Souchuk, also delirious, wandered off barefoot to find help. Miraculously -- his word -- Halsey survived the night under a poncho. Just as miraculously, his partner was spotted from a boat, and they both ended up in a hospital.
They headed for Saskatchewan on snowshoes. They shed their civilized accouterments, including tent, stove and boots. "A nylon tent just reminds you that you don't belong there. It's alien. It holds the moisture, so that at 40 degrees below zero you wake up in the middle of your own snow storm. Then you have to jog around waiting for that stupid little stove to boil water."
They built fires instead and slept rough, under a tarpaulin. "We underdressed, staying as cold as possible. We never got sick, except in the settlements," where there were germs. They threw away their expensive boots and bought caribou and moosehide moccasins sewed by stout Indian women. They bought dogs, harness and a toboggan, and learned to must without a whip, over country that few white people have seen.
Asked why he did it, Halsey quotes Swedish explorer Fin Malgram, who perished trying to land by zeppelin at the North Pole in 1928: "Emptiness, loneliness, beauty, purity."
There were other mishaps. Halsey devised a sail for his 18-foot Grumman aluminum canoe, which occasionally dumped the explorers and their equipment. Halsey chopped off the tip of his thumb on a deserted island in Lake Winnipeg, with no first aid kit, but by then was inured to disaster. (He wrapped the thumb in a greasy bandanna and plunged it into a pot of boiling tea; the thumb recovered.)
With a rusty single-shot 12-gauge, Halsey gunned down a bear for food. He broke an ankle. He made light of a good-luck charm given to him by an intoxicated Cree trapper, and for a solid month caught no rabbits in his wire snares. He performed his own ceremony of contrition, and the rabbits returned.
As the expedition continued, the men sailed across the southern end of James Bay, below Hudson's Bay, a veritable ocean crossing in which waves, ice and tides conspired. They disdained head nets; their hair became clotted with blood -- their own -- from fly bites. "Indians lived there for thousands of years without head nets. What if we had gotten used to the nets and then lost them? We couldn't have dealt with the bugs then."
The day before the trekkers arrived at Tadoussac, Quebec, journey's end, Halsey's father came out to meet them with a bottle of champagne. And thus they returned to civilization, and the greetings of 500 townspeople, reporters, friends and family.
Halsey is planning a solo voyage from Chicago to... the North Pole.
'You're 30 feet below the surface, on the edge of the northern Bermuda reefs. You're trying to recover brass candlesticks, clay pipes, tools and wood implements from beneath coral-encrusted cannon. Boulders of coral sit balanced above you. You're working, your butt sticking up, not paying attention to anything else. A colleague above, watching with a water glass, sees an eight-foot white [shark] swim in from the deep.Maybe that white hasn't eaten for days. The shark eyes the bubbles rising from your airlift..."
The speaker looks more like a retired linebacker than a historian; he sounds more like Lyndon Johnson than Dillon Ripley. He is Mendel Peterson, 64, a former curator for the National Museum, and director of the Smithsonian's Underwater Exploration Project until 1973. He has almost certainly made more deep-sea dives than any other GS15, most of them in the warm waters of the Caribbean, gleaning artifacts and relevant historical data from shipwrecks.
The ship in question, The Eagle, went down in 1659, bound for Virginia with a cargo of seed oats and Dutch gin, two commodities still in demand in what was then a wild and dangerous colony. "The man on board the salvage ship didn't tell us about the shark until later. If we had tried to come up, the shark might have struck at us. Instead, he went on down the reef to find his breakfast."
Some of the artifacts recovered went to the Smithsonian Institution, the rest to the Bernudan government.
Peterson recalls the incident in his study in Northern Virginia. Sunlight falling through the French doors illuminates a 17th-century Spanish library table, Olmec carvings, pale green Luristan bronze weapons from northwest Iran, Chinese amulets, curiously shaped bottles in amber and cobalt blue, ancient coins, flint axheads, a Moroccan musket -- all acquired from dealers -- and books on history, archeology, numismatics.
Peterson was born in Idaho. He saw the Gulf of Mexico as a child and has never gotten over that particular experience. In a room next to his study stand 30 feet of bound notebooks containing photographs in triplicate of every major collection of muzzle-loading ordnance on earth -- with the exception of Leningrad -- for a unique encyclopedia, his life's work.
Peterson's several books include Funnel of Gold, a historian's saga of the Spanish treasure fleets. He is also working on a book of reminiscences, "an intellectual adventure. Before, there were real dangers in my work -- sudden pressure changes, collapsing wrecks. Now I try not to fall down the stairs."