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The Best Outside Long Reads of 2020

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“Utah Wanted All the Tourists. Then It Got Them.”

North Window at Arches. Original photo is circa 1930.
(Photos: Arches, PhotoQuest/Getty; people: Philippe Beyer/EyeEm/Getty. Art: Petra Zeiler.)

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe we ran a feature story on overcrowding in 2020 that doesn’t contain a single mention of viral loads, the effectiveness of masks, or the ethics of large-scale human gatherings. Mark Sundeen’s January report, which explores how Utah’s five iconic national parks became victims of the state’s genius marketing efforts to attract tourists, now seems like a relic from another era. But one day soon, the pandemic will be in our rearview, and when that happens, the biggest issue facing adventure travel in the recent past—how do we protect the world’s most sought-after destinations from being loved to death?—is destined to dominate the future. —Chris Keyes, editor

“Everything on ‘Naked and Afraid’ Is Real—and I Lived It”

It’s a sufferfest for glory, a chance to face nature and win.
(Photo: Quince Mountain)

I was riveted by Blair Braverman’s behind-the-scenes look at her time on the popular reality series Naked and Afraid. Braverman, a writer and long-distance dog musher who lives in Wisconsin, was thrown out of her comfort zone when the show sent her to spend three weeks in the South African desert to survive completely naked with only a pile of firewood and a few tools. Surrounded by elephants, hyenas, and poisonous snakes, she encountered a variety of life-threatening hazards and developed an unlikely friendship with fellow survivalist Gary Golding, one of the show’s more colorful characters. Her vivid, suspenseful account of that experience was among our most popular features of the year. It kept me hooked until the very end. —Sophie Murguia, assistant editor

“What’s Wrong with Jeb’s Brain?”

Corliss at Skydive Perris in Southern California
(Photo: Stephanie Mei-Ling)

Athletes are often really bad at talking about themselves and what they do. In profiles of sports figures, you can frequently feel the writer straining to make an interesting story out of boring material. This profile of legendary BASE jumper Jeb Corliss is the exact opposite of that. For one, Corliss is an incredible storyteller, never shying away from gruesome details (“Then I see a severed leg on the ground”) and honest reflections when describing his life jumping off the world’s tallest buildings, waterfalls, cliffs, and bridges. What’s more, at 44 he’s well past the peak of his career and in a period of life where he’s able to reflect about what motivates him to do mind-bogglingly dangerous feats over and over again. Add to that the lyrical writing of Daniel Duane, one of the all-time great chroniclers of the outdoors and its characters, and you’re reading of the best profiles Outside’s published in a long time. —Luke Whelan, senior research editor

“We’re Here to See the Great Doomed Thing”

The strange experience of sitting at the crossroads of many losses at once was poignantly encapsulated in this piece by Robert Moore. (It’s not online yet, but you can find it in a copy of our December 2020 issue, on newsstands now.) There’s cosmic loss, as Moor and his husband travel to see the Great Barrier Reef, which is soon to be a casualty of our changing climate. They also weather the global trauma of the early stages of the pandemic. Finally, Moor experiences personal, intimate tragedy after his partner has a major health scare. This year has offered more opportunities to grieve and contemplate what it means to be a person in the world (and how to be a good one, and what matters) than I know how to thoughtfully engage with. Moor’s expansive, hopeful essay offered a little guiding light. —Abbie Barronian, associate fitness editor

“Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream”

Graham in July 2020
(Photo: Kennedi Carter)

This summer, alongside the rest of the country, the outdoor industry wrestled with our own internalized, structural racism. We often claim (or maybe pretend) that the outdoors are free and equitable—a place for everyone, where the biggest hazards are lightning strikes, bears, and other acts of God. But wherever humans go, we take our human problems. For many Black outdoorspeople, one of the biggest dangers they will face on our public lands is other people. White people. After Latria Graham first wrote for us back in 2018 about what it was like to be a Black person in the outdoors, she received dozens of messages from readers sharing their own experiences and asking for advice on where and how they could enjoy nature without being threatened. Her response, informed by her own experiences and the horrific acts of racist violence against Black Americans in the intervening years, is both heartbreaking and heartening. —Maren Larsen, assistant gear editor

“The True Story of the White Island Eruption”

It was supposed to be a routine six-hour tour, including the highlight: a quick hike into the island’s otherworldly caldera. Then the volcano exploded.
(Illustration: Jason Holley)

This story from Alex Perry has all the makings of a fictional disaster movie: strong characters, heroic acts, and unspeakable tragedy. Except, of course, the incident is real. Through meticulous reporting, Perry takes us through the devastating 2019 volcanic eruption on a tiny but heavily touristed island off New Zealand that led to 22 deaths. You can’t look away from the action as it unfolds, but it’s the impact on the island’s surrounding community that sticks with you. —Will Taylor, gear director

When New Zealand’s Whakaari/White Island erupted, the media was quick to question why tourists were allowed there to begin with. And after reading that the volcano has been the most active in the country since 1978, I was, too. But Alex Perry’s story shows that, at a time when the media and readers often fall back on quick judgement calls, a beautifully written and deeply investigated long-form piece can remind us that at the heart of every tragedy is a very human story, often driven by good intentions. Perry did the same in his 2019 Outside feature about John Allen Chau, a young American missionary who was killed in his attempt to “save” a remote Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman Islands. As a writer, he has the uncanny ability to conjure up the small, seemingly insignificant details that, taken together, tell a story so rich and intimate that you wonder how he’s able to get into the minds of characters he’s never met. —Erin Riley, senior travel editor

“Meet the Woman Teaching the Psychology of Survival”

Wilderness experts are increasingly focusing on the psychological impacts of traumatic events outdoors.
(Photo: Menno Boermans/Cavan)

One of my favorite features we published this year was Emily Sohn’s profile of Kate Baecher, a pioneer in the field of wilderness psychology. I was shocked to learn that the work and research she’s doing—preparing adventurers and extreme athletes for mental health emergencies during their forays—is very rare. Many people who embark on serious expeditions experience some kind of trauma along the way, whether it’s ordinary fear and anxiety or the horror of watching someone die. Baecher’s efforts are is critically important, and this story made me optimistic that a shift may be coming in the way that outdoorspeople discuss and approach mental health. —Molly Mirhashem, digital deputy editor

“We Quit Our Jobs to Build a Cabin—Everything Went Wrong”

Bryan Schatz on top of the cabin he built with Patrick (Pat) Hutchison in Washington’s Cascade Mountains in 2018
(Photo: Patrick Hutchison)

Who hasn’t fantasized about doing this? A friend and I talk dreamily about the little plot of land we’re going to buy in the mountains together and build a yurt on. Never mind the fact that I couldn’t pick a miter saw out of a lineup. But read Bryan Schatz and Patrick Hutchison’s hilarious account of what actually happens when two pals (who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing) attempt to build a rustic cabin in the woods, and you’ll remember why you should probably hang on to that day job. In an age when we’re all being deluged with aspirational #cabinporn, this story is a fun, refreshing dose of reality and the perfect length for a weeknight read on the couch. —Gloria Liu, features editor

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