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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Cross Country Hiking and Wilderness

When Andrew Skurka visited Washington, DC and spoke at National Geographic’s Headquarters, he described the sense of being in Alaska and the Yukon in wilderness, “with a capital W,” as he said. He saw more bears than people and explained that he had more in common with the caribou, moose and other animals crossing the far north.

At one point Skurka said, “Food and sleep are just enablers.” They were what empowered the caribou, moose and bears to travel and stay alert. It was no different for Skurka.

In several of his presentations, Skurka has explained that he was so far away from civilization and immersed in wilderness that he had never been more vulnerable and exposed to the natural world — a world that weather, animal-survival instincts, food, water, shelter, sleep and terrain trumped all higher needs of life, such as companionship, education and advancement that people like me strive for on a typical day in Peaklessburg.

Skurka deprived himself of everything except the absolute essentials (part of his fast and light philosophy) on his long hikes and challenged himself a great deal to reach his sense of wonder about wilderness. I’ve experienced the same feelings, though no doubt on a smaller scale. If you have gone backpacking or climbing, particularly solo, when you start out, all that matters is your destination and your enjoyment. But the idea of enjoyment (and later, bragging rights, perhaps) shifts to fundamental desires for food, water and sleep.

These basic priorities open us up to new sense of connection with the land and wildlife around us; suddenly we want the same basic things they want. And wilderness really does deserve to be capitalized.

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Managing the Far North

Andrew Skurka taking questions at National Geographic.

Andrew Skurka visited Washington, DC and he presented at National Geographic’s headquarters last night. He talked about his 2010 Alaska-Yukon loop, that put him in the same category of great explorers as some of his heroes, like John Muir Ed Viesturs and numerous, reputable others.  

While Skurka has completed several long hikes in the past decade, including the Appalachian Trail, a sea-to-sea hike, and an enourmous western loop where he combined the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail he had already hiked about 16,900 miles mostly on maintained trails. These were just the warm up for his latest self challenge.

On March 14, 2010 — a year ago yesterday — Skurka set out to cover 4,679 more miles in a self-created loop across Alaska and the Yukon Territory. This expedition was different than his other hikes mainly for two reasons: 1) Very, very little of it was on maintained trails or roads; and 2) Hiking cross country in the far north is a very different challenge from hiking in the lower 48 states and the lower part of Canada.

To do this hike, he applied himself to learn to ski, use a pack boat and navigate off trail in the backcountry — all of which were a necessity for success on this route. This was in addition to the hallmark of successful long hikes: Good, solid planning. As he put it, there are couple different kinds of people in the world, and he happens to be one that believes all of the world’s problems can be solved with Excel! Skurka shared examples of his spreadsheets representing terrain, distances and checkpoints. It allowed him make reasonable estimates for supplies and distances.

Skurka appears to be a rather fit and durable athlete. Part of his durability, or the appearance of it, may stem from the fact that he is risk adverse. A few people in the audience gawked at that comment. But I agreed with him. While he maintains a high level of fitness, he also avoids situations where the risk is not manageable. His problem solving skills and new knowledge of backcountry navigation proves this point: At one point he came to a raging river flowing into the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of taking his packboat into the Gulf or stringing a rope, he evaluated his map and determined the least risky path was to follow the source of the river to the head of the glacier that fed it, blow up the pack boat and paddle across. In this way, his expedition has the appearance of looking easy.

The other reason Skurka deserves historic company with Muir is because of his sense of wilderness. I’ll talk about this a little more later, but I will say that his isolation from civilization brought him closer to the land and the wildlife. Humbling is probably the best single word to describe it.

He completed the loop where he started, in Kotzbue, Alaska on September 5, 2010 around 10:00 p.m. without fanfare.

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Great Andrew Skurka Completes Far North Mega Hike

In case you have not already heard (and you probably have), Andrew Skurka, a graduate of Duke University in North Carolina, completed his 4,700 mi./7,564 km. hike covering Alaska and the Yukon back on September 5th.

Here are some good links that recap his accomplishment:

His travels are epic, but I am sure that there are a few purists out there that snicker at his approach and use of media.  Well, I guess his ability to manage his communications and business operations keeps him doing these mega hikes.  Regardless, nicely done, Andrew!

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