Come plunge down China’s biggest sand dune, gallop headlong across the Argentine pampas and clamber up Yosemite’s Half Dome as we present our annual adventure issue, brimming with the world’s best ways to get your adrenaline pumping
Here’s the thing about climbing Half Dome as an amateur: You leave your campsite on the valley floor before dawn, queasily preoccupied with images of those steep rock faces lined with cables. Will you be able to do it? Will it be dangerous? But what you don’t consider is how long it will take to actually get to those cables. And that figure, at least for our group, was six hours—climbing rock staircase after rock staircase, over and over, hour after hour.
Essentially, there are two ways to get to the top of Half Dome, the majestic granite centerpiece of California’s Yosemite National Park. Option one, to simply go straight up its 4,800-foot face, is available only to world-class climbers. Option two involves an incredibly strenuous 8.2-mile uphill hike, culminating with a steep 400-foot ascent up the rounded east side of the dome, with two steel cables to hold on to and deadly slides looming on either side.
Taking the cables route remains one of the grandest backcountry treks available to the average hiker. While the dangers are very real, Half Dome sits in that middle ground between the adventures one can buy and those earned with years of experience.
Comfortably ensconced in marriage, fatherhood and job, I had been having nightmares about the cables. Most accidents, I’d learned, came from gambling with bad weather or walking on the outside of the cables to avoid congestion (the park service now issues just 400 daily permits to curb that problem). Once we arrived at the cable section, the hikers dragging themselves up the slope ahead of us were reminiscent of vintage Batman and Robin crawling up the side of a building, only with more grimacing. I swallowed hard, tugged on a pair of gardening gloves that a previous hiker had discarded in a pile at the base, and grabbed hold of the cable.
I went slowly, pausing at some of the wooden footholds to catch my breath, settle my nerves and, of course, take a look around. The views behind and to the side, while terrifying, were out of this world but nothing like what we experienced at the apex, from where we stared, overwhelmed by the embarrassment of marvelous nature below us. No car could have carried us there; no gift shop-bound tram either. Enhancing the view was the feeling of achievement: It required the kind of sweat and danger that rarely makes an appearance in my adult life.
We spent an hour there, in a large, flat, open area where a hundred or so people were spread out, many of them sitting alone in silence. All had earned the moment. This was the land of Ansel Adams, the land of adventure, of epic tales on epic peaks in the great Sierras. But for me, it was something else: the answer to the question of whether I still had a big one in me. Half Dome had posed that question in stark black and white. It felt good to have an answer. —Billy Baker
1. CYCLE MESSENGER WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: No futuristic spandex here. Encumbered with mail tubes and boxes shoved into nylon bags—preferably coated in a layer of bike grease for authenticity—you’ll careen through a complicated closed course in this international bike messenger competition, held this year in Chicago. Aug. 3-5
2. MONGOL DERBY: You’ll need to channel your inner barbarian (or at least a bit of madness) to complete this insane horse race covering 621 miles of the stark Mongolian steppe. Riders stop only to change steeds—just as the warriors and messengers of Khan’s empire did. Aug. 7-20
3. MOLOKA’I HOE: The hula dancers and crowds cheering you to the finish will seem a delirious mirage after the merciless waters of the Kaiwi Channel, which separates Oahu from Molokai, do their best to force your team’s vessel aground in the world’s premier outrigger canoe race. Oct. 7
4. 2013 POLAR CHALLENGE: Hiking, climbing and skiing across the North Pole’s seas of ice and frozen tundra while staving off fellow competitors and polar bears sound like fun? If so, now’s the time to put in an application for this extreme test of endurance—and start stocking up on the Chap-Stick. April 12, 2013 —Felicia Campbell and Hannah Serena Goldstein
We reached the chalet at Bâlea Lac, Romania, in a blizzard by way of Communist-era cable car. The summer road, built in the ’70s to provide escape over the Fagaras Mountains in case of Soviet invasion, was buried. Near the top, the operator had leaped out to help dig passage to the wheelhouse. Inside we played hearts and drank beer served by women in Jägermeister uniforms. There were pelts on the walls, an old photo of the place after it had been crushed by an avalanche, a soccer game on satellite TV. In the morning, we awoke to an ice-blue sky and our own private alpine cirque to carve up as we pleased. —David Page
In the waters around the Galápagos, Fernandina Island’s cormorants are like feathered rockets, using webbed feet to dive down in search of small prey. Galápagos penguins dash and dart through the waves of Tagus Cove. Marine iguanas look like miniature Godzillas, wriggling their way to the ocean’s depths in search of algae. Sea turtles feast on vast schools of medusa jellyfish. Fish representing every color of the spectrum provide a rich visual feast. But it was the Galápagos sea lions that stole my heart, their curiosity transforming them from elegant underwater ballet dancers into playful, bubble-blowing clowns and back again. After a week of snorkeling, I found myself regretting the need to come up for air. —Bret Love
WORDS FROM THE WILD
“Pennsylvania has taught me perseverance. It’s in the dead middle of the Appalachian Trail. To add to that, it’s like all the other states took their rocks and dumped them there. Not only do your feet hurt from those jagged edges, your neck hurts from having to look straight down all day. But it’s also taught me to look for beauty in unlikely places: a colorful lizard, a small spring or an interesting rock formation. You’re not going to have great views, you’re not going to have scenic waterfalls— but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.” —Jennifer Pharr Davis, author of Becoming Odyssa and record holder for fastest Appalachian Trail completion