Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Pros and Cons of Being There First

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Pros and Cons of Being There First

Article excerpt

EXPLORATORY TRIPS, on which adventure travelers go where no paying clients have gone before, are the last honest-to-Indiana-Jones adventures.

This adventure sometimes comes with a penalty: You get less trekking, river-rafting or whatever the main event of the trip is supposed to be, with more delays, frustrations and unpredictability.

But being first can be worth it. Molly Devlin, a San Francisco-area software marketer and global-adventure travel enthusiast, thinks so. So does Frith Maier, an old hand at Central Asian mountaineering and trekking, who has led scores of trips, including exploratories.

Devlin is a veteran of Mountain Travel/Sobek's first descent by raft of the Ghizar River in Pakistan's Hindu Kush region. Maier, Russia operations coordinator for REI Adventures, has led a dozen first-time group trips..

The price of exploration on Devlin's trip included daily portages on the Ghizar River, around rapids she would have loved to run.

The same wild water would have been run by a larger party on a better-known river. But her group, like most exploratories, had been kept small. With only two rafts and 10 people on the river, trip leaders couldn't position extra boats downstream to pick up swimmers if a boat flipped. Before the trip, the Ghizar had been scouted but not rafted.

"All of us on the trip were disappointed (by the rafting)," Devlin says.

Making a first descent was, however, glorious. A good deal of the glory lay in contact with locals not yet inured to adventure travelers. The group saw no other Westerners for nine days. Schools let out, and entire villages lined the river banks to watch rafters go by.

"You feel like you've really been immersed in the culture," Devlin says.

Maier's group got a different sort of cultural immersion at an outpost on the Siberian-Mongolian border.

"Here I am with a group of 15 people, and there's an army captain who's telling us that his orders are to shoot us in the back if we try to cross the border," she recalls. "The guy has never heard of us. And he's not allowed to let foreign tourists cross."

It was three days before the REI adventurers got into Mongolia.

"We were a long way from home, eating up limited vacation time," Maier says.

Maier, the first Westerner to penetrate parts of the former Soviet Union and author of "Trekking in Russia & Central Asia" ($16.95, The Mountaineers), believes that the planet still holds many surprises for future exploratories.

Perry Robertson, director of river operations for Mountain Travel/Sobek, says that rafters, too, can be bullish about future exploratories.

"We should be able to discover new rivers and have these challenges for many years to come," he says.

Robertson, who ran the Ghizar with Devlin's group, says the Upper Mekong River, which rises in Tibet, looks very promising, as do streams in the African nations of Angola and Mozambique, both opening to outsiders after years of internal strife. …

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