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From Mountains to Sea, Stories of Joy Followed by Sorrow

Today is bound to arouse wide sentiment, some looking back and others forward, remembering good times and bad--and hoping for better times ahead.

The last day of 1999?

It seems only yesterday that the year began, with promise, as all years do, then unfolding, as all years do, with joy and sorrow.

The great outdoors is not immune to this grand scheme. And looking back, it’s not too difficult to find a few striking examples of how wonderful life is, but how fragile our existence can be.

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When renowned mountaineer Alex Lowe and a couple of buddies became the first to conquer the sheer and daunting northwest face of Great Trango Tower last summer, there was reason for them to rejoice. Lowe and companions Mark Synnott and Jared Ogden showed that teamwork and determination can take you far.

By sticking together, and literally living on the edge for more than three weeks, the trio finally stood proudly atop the 20,618-foot peak in northern Pakistan, and savored their success with a breath of fresh air, thin as it was.

Their historic climb was sweet for another reason: The American group reached the summit before a Russian expedition that was also trying to be first.

But when Lowe, two months later, was buried alive by an avalanche during an ascent of the 26,291-foot Tibetan peak Shishipangma, a mountain of sorrow came crumbling down upon the climbing community, Lowe’s wife and three young children.

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Jennifer Lowe had worried that such a fate might someday befall her husband. Unfortunately, she will have no such worries in 2000.

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When renowned Southland skipper James “Rollo” Heyn took to the sea aboard the Royal Polaris for any of the luxury sportfisher’s long-range voyages into Mexican waters, there was plenty of joy on his watch.

Like Lowe, Rollo seemed larger than life. He was a great fisherman, but he was also one of those rare individuals who made everyone around him feel comfortable. He also made them laugh. Regulars booked trips according to Rollo’s schedule. With Rollo lending a helping hand, battling a 300-pound yellowfin tuna was not nearly as intimidating as it otherwise might be.

But when Rollo came home in the vessel’s freezer one day, the victim of an explosion at the stern, a sea of sorrow swamped the San Diego waterfront and Stephanie Heyn, Rollo’s wife of five months.

Nobody could make sense of this tragedy, which occurred last February as Rollo and a few others were passing time during the long and tedious ride home by throwing homemade explosives into the water. Rollo held one a little too long, for some reason, and bled to death in a matter of hours. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral--practically all of them cried.

It wasn’t the first time explosives had been used during the boring stage of one of those multiday trips, after the fishing, up the Baja coast after the fly-back passengers had been dropped off at Cabo San Lucas.

Here’s hoping that 2000 will start with only a figurative bang, that the biggest splashes will be made by the fish--and that the boats are well-stocked with movies to help pass the time.

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When Mark Monazzami, a Bay Area computer consultant, and his bride paddled a two-person kayak beyond the Maui surf and toward a colorful sunset, there was plenty of joy. The lovers were in paradise, having left their cares on the mainland.

But when a big wind came up and blew their slender vessel farther and farther off shore, there was a feeling first of helplessness, then of fright, followed by terror and tragedy, ultimately resulting in one of the most bizarre tales of the year.

And for Monazzami, a sea of sadness weighs even heavier in his heart because not everyone believes his story.

If Monazzami’s account is accurate, the couple was unable to paddle against the howling trade winds and slowly drifted off shore, watching the sun set on their hopes of a daytime rescue.

They capsized often during the night and, to escape the chilly wind, they slipped into the water and planned to cling to their kayak until daybreak. Suddenly, the shrill cry, “Shark!” filled the air. Monazzami’s wife was pulled under briefly, and resurfaced in a daze.

Her left arm had been torn off at the shoulder. Monazzami pulled her aboard and tried to stop the bleeding, using the string from his trunks as a tourniquet. Nahid Davoodabai drifted in and out of consciousness for the next 30 minutes and then “she started screaming from the bottom of her heart,” Monazzami would later say, “and I was going crazy because I couldn’t do anything to help her.”

Eventually, the screaming stopped. She had died in his arms. Weary and distraught, he lost hold of his wife and climbed atop the kayak and let the current take him where it would. He no longer cared if he lived or died, he said, and he drifted off to sleep. At daybreak, he awoke to the sound of his kayak bumping against the rocky shore of a small, uninhabited island recently used by the Navy for target practice.

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Monazzami, who lost his stringless trunks while struggling to the beach, spent the next three days wandering naked amid spent military ordnance, drinking from small pools of rainwater, ultimately finding a phone in a bunker that actually worked. He dialed 911, and upon hearing the voice of another human, he broke down and cried.

This happened last March. Since a body was never found, Maui police are still treating this as a missing-person case. A life preserver similar to one worn by Davoodabai was recovered on the small island, Kahoolawe, days after the incident, but there were no teeth marks or any other evidence to prove Monazzami’s story.

“At this point there is nothing to refute or repute what he said happened,” Lt. Glenn Cuomo said this week. “What we’d really like to do is find the body. Then we’d know for sure.”

In August, Monazzami told the Associated Press that he had lost his job and was suffering from depression. Now he’s not talking to reporters.

“I’m sorry, but I really have nothing more to say,” he said, when reached at his Sunnyvale apartment this week. “I’m not supposed to say anything to the media.”

If his story is true--and there’s no tangible reason not to believe it--he certainly deserves whatever happiness 2000 might bring.

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So, what impact has Lowe’s death had on climbing? None, beyond the emotional aspects and perhaps illustrating yet again that with any serious adventure there is risk--no matter how good you are.

Just last week, Robert Anderson’s expedition up the north face of Everest was called off because of the poor health of a Sherpa guide. Meanwhile, Todd Burleson’s expedition up the slopes of Africa’s Kilimanjaro is on schedule, despite the group having helped set up an evacuation for a climber in a different group, who had become seriously ill.

There are other expeditions in progress and many more planned. Life goes on, and the zest for adventure continues. But perhaps Lowe’s death will make those following in his footsteps tread more carefully.

The death of Heyn, involving entirely different circumstances, obviously will leave a void for fishermen aboard the Royal Polaris. Here’s hoping it also will inspire a serious resolve, among those involved in San Diego’s long-range operation, to act more responsibly.

The sportfishing boats, the largest and most sophisticated in the world, are certainly seaworthy enough, but they seem to encounter stormy seas, in a figurative sense, all too often.

In the spotlight before the Royal Polaris incident was the Red Rooster III, a 105-foot craft that collided with a 700-foot freighter on a dark night in October 1998. The vessel suffered only a crumpled bow because one of the crew managed to throw the engines into reverse in the nick of time. Otherwise, it might have been cut in half, killing 27 passengers. The crewman was fired for failing to notify the captain of the impending danger. The captain, who turned over control of the boat to an unqualified crewman so he could take a nap, received only a brief license suspension from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Then, last April, with the same captain, Andy Cates, back aboard as second in command, a 24-year-old female passenger disappeared during the night south of Baja, the victim of an apparent suicide. She had been acting strangely and had been heard arguing with her boyfriend during the multiday trip.

A Coast Guard investigator said she was a known drug user, but added that the crew had followed proper procedure before and after the incident. But, as is the case with Monazzami, a body was never found and the case remains open.

Certain things are beyond the control of the captains and crews, of course, but incidents such as these are serious--and the last thing the fleet needs as it sails into 2000.

As for the Monazzami affair, it should not keep anyone from renting a kayak and paddling around the Hawaiian islands, but it should serve as a reminder that the ocean, as much as the highest mountains, deserves a great deal of respect.

Something to keep in mind as we hobble into the 2000s.


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