Really Getting Out There
Before she went on a serious, backcountry ski traverse, a friend sent me a letter. She was going on an expedition with three other women into the mountains south of Rogers Pass in the spring, and there would be many days of unavoidable avalanche terrain. In the letter she told me that our friendship meant a lot to her. Of the deadly possibilities she wrote, "I don't expect anything to happen, but if it does you'll know I was having fun."
I felt a jolt of fear at the thought
of her being in danger, doing something more extreme than we usually did.
Yet I also smiled because I recognized her letter as a thing people do
when they understand how to face danger well. She was setting up for herself
a special kind of freedom. Similarly, years before I had heard of a young
man who had become a paratrooper, and before he was deployed overseas
he had come home for a last weekend to visit old girlfriends and explain
things he hadn't had the courage to explain before. He apologized for
whatever needed apology and cleaned up old business. When he left he would
not have to look back. My friend was doing something similar: tying off
loose ends in her life before she crossed the line out of our ordinary
world and went to a place that was spectacular, immediate and very real.
There are many reasons why people
cross that line and go into the backcountry, but paramount among them
is the sense of freedom. We go outside the world of telephones, sleep
under the stars and cross the landscape using only our bodies and oatmeal
for fuel. This is Big Freedom, but at the same time don't forget the other
freedom that we create before we go on the trip, when we shove back the
commitments and obligations in our home lives to obtain the time to leave.
It may be the Little Freedom, it may be no more than putting the mail
on hold and arranging for someone else to feed the cat. But, as with the
people I described above, when a really committing backcountry adventure
is in the offing, we might feel the call instead to really clean house
in our lives, to prepare by loosing bonds we don't usually disturb, perhaps
even all of the bonds that tie us.
The worst thing is not, after all,
to get out there and not know what to do. The worst thing is to get out
there and find you're still bound by some ill-defined commitment to make
it back alive. It makes you distracted, hesitant, only half there in spirit.
You regard the progress of the trip with anxiety. You feel indecisive.
You do not feel free. It is not the intense experience of aliveness that
comes with finding yourself totally present in a dynamic world of snow
and rock, the whole world consisting simply what you can see and feel
and hear, the only people in it your companions. That's the sense of complete
self-reliance and responsibility that creates a heightened awareness,
and in turn a kind of peace.
It can be addictive. It may be the
most alive experiences a person has ever had.
So as I held my friend's letter
in my hand it occurred to me that she was doing an Important Thing, an
important thing for her soul, and yet how sadly misunderstood the motives
behind her expedition might be. It was all too easy to imagine voices,
critical voices, saying, "Is she actually going on purpose to do
something so dangerous that there's a chance she might die? It's crazy
to go out there, to do something so risky! It shouldn't be allowed."
Hearing those sort of words is a
familiar experience to all adventurers. We stand in a fast flowing river
of culture, and the strong currents usually run toward Security and against
Risk. In the mainstream, the received wisdom is that deliberately going
somewhere less than "safe" is weird, and that no one in their
right mind does something mortally risky. People unfamiliar with the experience
of backcountry travel tend to be unaware of the essential experience of
freedom out there, and they focus on the risks to life and limb.
It's tempting to consider how this
might be different. If our critic had himself experienced that freedom,
he'd be able to soberly discuss the inevitable linkage between risk and
freedom; there would be a social space in which we could accommodate the
idea of exposure courted by personal choice. Seeking risk might be a respectable
pursuit. But the real world is that our critics haven't experienced the
freedom inherent in this kind of adventure, and you can't take every detractor
out there just to change his point of view. Nor does it seem likely that
this would work for all people.
But within the community of adventurers
we can at least within ourselves be clear about what's going on and honour
it. When a person intentionally goes out there, placing only her wits
between herself and the void-knowing that wits may not be enough-a kind
of dignity is created. Out of respect for that dignity, we can begin by
honouring the cleaning up of loose ends, by not fighting it. We have to
weigh the experience of freedom even as we acknowledge the fact of the
danger. This position asks that we confront in ourselves the reality of
mortality, that "if not now, then surely later," and propose
that for quality of life it is sometimes necessary-not to head directly
toward death-but not to run in a straight line away from him either. We
must accord those we love (and those we don't even know) the privilege
of taking responsibility for themselves.
For as my friend said (and she did return, safe!): probably nothing will happen, but if it does we'll know they were having fun-and quite possibly something more profound than fun.
Smithers, BC, 11/03
© Copyright 2003, Morgan Hite
This piece was originally published in Backpackers News Vol. 5, No. 6 (Nov 2003)