Really Getting Out There

by Morgan Hite

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)