The Digital Debate: Tech in the Wilderness


[T]he climbers that taught me were old school Adirondack hard men. At that time I didn’t know what a hard man was, and on some of those trips I didn’t care. What I knew was nothing was good enough, and no error was ever overlooked. Relentless heckling. Relentless correction. No gaiter was ever put on just right. No crampon bail was ever seated properly. Everything could be a little better. And no matter how light I packed my bag one of them would inevitably tear into it at the trailhead and huck a bunch of ‘junk’ back into the truck. These were gangsters that drilled and trimmed their toothbrush handles. Popped the side plates of their Swiss Army knives. No stove or fuel and cold homemade pemmican for a 4 day trip. Hard as New Hampshire granite.

You’d think they were weight weenies. Those engineer types that count ounces as a kind of math test. But these guys, they weren’t weight weenies. They were proud, prideful, arrogant New Englanders who didn’t ask for help, ever. And in places like the Daks and the Whites and the Greens where weather can turn on you with a precision that makes it feel like it has taken a personal interest in trying to kill you specifically, the safest thing to do sometimes is move fast so you never end up in a situation where you need help.

‘If you take the bivy gear you’ll move so slow you’ll need the bivy gear. If you don’t have the gear and you know a bivy isn’t an option, you’ll be lighter and move faster and make better choices.’

I came up as a climber with that self-rescue ethic. It’s how I travel in the backcountry and like all lessons learned in the mountains, it has become a part of my personality no matter where I am. Some people that have the self-rescue ethic, they say it’s not fair to expect another person to risk their life to save some stranger’s hash. Yeah, maybe they’re right, although if you’ve met anyone in SAR you know there’s actually nothing they like more than saving people. For me self-rescue is about much more than sparing someone else risk. It’s that pride thing. I got myself into this mess, and I’ll damn sure get myself out. We came in as a team of climbers and we’re walking out of here the same way, even if we’re carrying someone. Just know that it will be us who do the carrying.

If you think men climb high mountains for the view or the glory or the hero pictures then you don’t know much about men or mountains.

20 years ago, when I went back into the mountains after a bit of a hiatus, mobile phones were as big as paperback books and as reliable as the guy selling Prada purses out of his van in the grocery store parking lot. Deciding whether or not to take one on a backcountry trip was a no-brainer. No debate required. 10 years pass and a mobile is half the weight and a quarter the size. Now the debate gets complicated. 10 more years pass and it’s 2013 and a mobile is tiny and reliable, and service bleeds over from the highways and valleys enough to give at least somewhat consistent coverage. Or you can buy a satellite puck antenna that turns any cell phone into a sat phone for voice and data. Add native GPS and a decent camera and taking a mobile into the backcountry seems like a given. Why wouldn’t you take one?

The logical arguments are straight boilerplate. We’ve all heard them.

Pro – It’s a few extra ounces, no more than the first aid kit we all carry and never use. It’s like a seatbelt; not much good in a heroic catastrophe, but heroic catastrophes are, thankfully, rare. Most backcountry drama is ticky-tack nonsense like rolled ankles and bee sting allergies. It’s irresponsible and thoughtless to the people that care about us to take even a minor risk if we don’t need to. Sure it might not work but statistically, most of the time, it will, and it will turn something potentially tragic into something merely embarrassing.
Cons – It’s not reliable enough and offers nothing but false confidence. The idea that we can ‘call for help’ distorts our judgment and makes us take unnecessary, foolish risks. It’s too complex and fragile, and it doesn’t belong in the backcountry. The ancillary functions – email, MP3 player, FaceBook – are the things we’re trying to get away from in the first place; the temptation to take our job with us to the mountains is too great to resist.

But here’s the thing about those logical arguments. Climbing a mountain is one of the most illogical and pointless projects a man can undertake. No, but it is. Spend thousands of dollars on gear and train for months to walk up a steep, pointy hill in the snow. A hill that’s tossing random cantaloupe sized rocks at you while the wind tries to steal your fingertips. And the ‘reward’, assuming you summit, is to slowly peel your toenails off walking back down the steep, pointy hill as it gets dark and the weather closes down around you. And all the while you can know if you ever try to share the experience with anyone you’ll get questions like, ‘Did you have the ice picky things on your shoes?’

I won’t go so far as to say mountaineering is a selfish undertaking, but it is one of the most inwardly focused and solitary things you’ll ever do. It is an intensely personal experience, and, as they say, you don’t need to share it with people that get it, and there’s no point trying to share it with people who don’t.

‘Because it’s there’ is the go to answer for why men climb mountains. It’s repeated with lofty, philosophical reverence. Deep, man. But that response was given as a snappy, antagonistic response to a reporter’s question. It was never intended to be the definitive answer to why men climb mountains.

I don’t climb to feel big and powerful and victorious. I climb to remind myself how small I am, and how meaningless, and how fragile. That is my actual size, as compared to the world I live in and I want to feel it. I want to be humbled and reminded of my place, because that place, small as it may be, it’s mine. Because when I can feel myself in that place, in the place I belong on this world that is my home, that’s peace.

The sunshine walkups I’ve been on, the days I’ve been strong and fast and smooth, the days I didn’t get lost and ran up the summit in the glowing pre-dawn and moseyed down with a stop for a nice hot lunch, yeah I didn’t learn much about myself on those days. Good days, to be sure, but not productive.

The best, most memorable, most enlightening, most bonding trips I’ve been on are the trips that tried to kill me. And none of them could have gone the way they did if we had hit the SAR button and hitched a ride home on a heli at $1000 a head.

Look I’m not saying I crave crisis or drama, but in the words of Yvon Chouinard – a hard man from the Daks – ‘The word adventure has just gotten over used. For me adventure is…is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.’

I apply that to my life so far. I choose to believe that every awful moment, every crisis, every bad choice, all that misery has brought me to this moment, and there is no place I’d rather be. Misery is the currency we use to buy this present moment. Had fate or luck or another person stepped in to spare me that misery, I wouldn’t be here now. Well intentioned as they may have been, they would have taken this moment from me. Joy and pleasure teach us nothing. Growth and progress can only come from frustration, as it is not in our nature to improve something until we see it as deficient.

On some level – a level most of us don’t choose to go to – we recognize that nearly all the pain in our lives has come from our own bad choices. Selfish choices. Choices made with reckless, irrational optimism. Childish motivations. Petty revenge. Hurting someone because we hurt. And booze, naturally. Booze was involved in a few of them. If we’re honest we have to admit there really hasn’t been much that was done to us. All too often we inflict damage on ourselves.

The same goes for choices in the backcountry. In all my trips I’ve been whacked by legitimate object hazards maybe once, and even that’s debatable. In reality, every trip gone epic was entirely my own fault or the fault of someone in my party. And every single time – solo or group – there was no call to SAR. Lots of yelling. Name calling. Lots of, ‘I told you so!’ A couple fistfights. Some crying, pouting, and stomping off in a huff. Hypothermia, heat stroke, cut ropes, dropped pro, snapped tools, localized frostbite, and severely off route more times than I can count. And if I somehow could go back and do it all over again, there isn’t a single trip I’d change. Not a single detail of a single trip. I’d keep every one just the way it happened, and I’d keep what I learned from it. About people, and myself, and life.

I won’t presume to speak for Aron Ralston or Joe Simpson, but the fact that you know instantly who those men are is proof, to me anyway, of how life takes your plan and slaps the shit out of you with it till you finally say ‘Enough!’ That’s how life gets your attention. That’s how life reminds you who you are, and how big you are, and once you have that perspective you can see things accurately. For a minute, anyway. Till life needs to remind you again.

For me, no cell or sat phone. No GPS. I take a local topo and and a scarred old Brunton pocket transit. I take a SOL solo bivy tube. Bag of raisins and cashews, and some of that vile homemade pemmican. I leave my keys up inside the bumper like my father taught me, and then I go see if the backcountry will be kind enough to teach me something. It hasn’t let me down so far.

Words and Photography by: William Johnston