The Common Core of the Outdoor Experience

What we're seeking is out there. Can we be satisfied?

We often get asked — and sometimes we ask ourselves — why do we hike? Why do we climb? “Because it is there” is not deep enough any more.

The essence of it is the same for John Muir, Reinhold Messner and Andrew Skurka. I believe the common thread between them was what they were seeking. In fact, they all talked about it. The great thing is, it can be experienced in different levels. But you cannot know about it until you’ve been there and felt it. Figuring it out for myself took me years.

Mountaineer and author David Roberts worked for years trying to determine what drove him to the mountains. In his book, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, he references how notable climbers all talk about challenging themselves and learning things about themselves they would never have learned without their pursuit. However, as Roberts points out, the climbers have never said what it was they learned. I now know, and Roberts probably does too, that it was not something they could teach.

When I go into the backcountry, I go to get away from society’s structure and its related pressures, temporarily deprive myself of comforts, and emphasize my simplest needs, such as food, water, shelter and sleep. I also enjoy the self challenge of going to the outdoors, particularly when I set a trivial challenge like hike and climb to that peak. Nobody really cares if I’m successful but me, so long as I return unhurt and alive. High stakes are part of the sport, though.

I also go because it is on my terms — or at least the allusion of my terms. It’s an allusion because even when we go into the wild today it’s wilderness only because it is designated so by regulation. Of course, it’s also on my terms in regards to my tolerance for risk. What is tame and acceptable for me might be overwhelmingly frightening for someone else. I can choose my own fate that way.

In addition, according to alpinist Steve House in his book Beyond the Mountain, sharing our deprivation, basic needs and goals with a partner or a team can make the experience be nothing short of, well, magical. That is because it creates the rare opportunity for someone else to know exactly what you’re going through. However, chemistry between you and your partners is a necessary factor.

These can only be done and felt in the wilderness. Muir made a religion out of its value. Messner promotes the idea of connecting with our wild side. Skurka discovered it for himself on his long hikes, particularly on his 2010 Alaska-Yukon Expedition. Wilderness is an experience. It’s why we go and what we seek. But you have to go to know.

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