Adventure as Art

Beni Moryson, host of the German ultralight blog hrXXlight, asked me to share some insights from the Wilderness Classics. I was uncomfortable talking about the classics as an expert because I am not an expert and my ‘success’ as an adventurer, whatever that means, has more to do with great partners and bad weather than anything else. So I wrote about adventure as art, ideas that my mom planted in my head this summer.

Some people satisfy the need for self-expression through art or music. Although not recognized as artists, we, as adventurers, can fulfill that same need through interactions with the landscape.

People are different in the woods. You have probably experienced it yourself; playing outside strips away urban layers of stress, status, routine, and brings our core, our essence, closer to the surface. That essence always seems to be a beautiful thing, a sense of power, invincibility, and strength. When I recognize it in myself I often think, “This is who I am. This is where I’m supposed to be.” It is a glow. I see the glow in my partners as well, irresistible, drawing me toward their energy and confidence.

This summer my mom convinced me that adventuring is art. I had been aware of how rewarding wilderness trips are for years, but I hadn’t recognized my need to play outside, and how similar my need is to an artist’s need to express themself. My need to interact with the landscape, rock, snow, or water, is similar to an artist’s need to paint or play music, the need to create something from within, self-expression. Recognizing adventure as art has helped me understand some of my life decisions, but more importantly, recognizing adventure as art makes me want to get more creative with future trips.

My mom and brother are both artistic, and I’ve always felt left out. But with my mom’s prompting, I am excited to accept adventuring as my artistic expression. Adventuring is an incredibly creative process. We choose routes from drainage patterns, ridge lines, and shades of green in the vegetation. And like traditional artists, we make sacrifices that allow us to pursue self-expression. I’ve taken part-time jobs, ended relationships, and quit graduate schools to pursue my passions in Alaska. And if we don’t make time for our art, we are unhappy. When I don’t make time to adventure, I starve, I cave in.

When everything clicks in the mountains, I have moments of euphoria. Roman Dial describes these moments as ‘going mindless;’ the body just knows what to. I think of these moments as a glow, something primal that reflects an essence of being. The glow often stays with me for several days, during which I feel invincible and magnetic. I attract attention and can do no wrong, even if I’m trying to talk to girls! I was glowing in the grocery store in Anchorage after my first Summer Wilderness Classic when a cute girl with a southern accent started flirting with me. But then she looked at my feet and said I need to take better care of my toenails (oh the sacrifices of an artist!).

My most creative trips, the trips that give me the most glow, have been Alaska’s Summer and Winter Mountain Wilderness Classics (unsupported, multi-day, 200-300 km-scale races). Participants that finish the courses often say something like, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done… and also the most rewarding.” The Classics have been life-changing for me, largely because each year I learn more about how my body handles rough conditions. My body seems to excel when conditions degrade, and in that state I begin to glow.

In this year’s Summer Wilderness Classic we chose a 190 km glaciated route through the Alaska Range. Conditions were wetter and colder than expected, and traveling without sleeping bags or tents meant that we never had a good opportunity to sleep. Nobody on the team got more than 30 minutes rest during 2 days and 16 hours on the route. Despite the sleep deprivation and cold, all four of us maintained an incredible pace and attitude, we absolutely glowed. We floated ‘mindlessly’ through loose landslide debris and fog-hidden ice. In an unspoken dance we took turns leading when someone else started to fade. I kept thinking, ‘This is so human, this is right!’ Wet, cold, and breaking through a crevasse every few hundred meters, John Sykes, our 22 year-old ace just kept smiling and pushing, glowing with appreciation for his body’s strength, route-finding skill, and contribution to the team. It was a hugely empowering experience for him, life-changing.

I encourage you to consider yourself an artist; plan your next adventure as an artist. Recognize the elements that give you that ‘mindless’ or glowing state. Choose the most interesting route, even if it is inefficient. Put yourself in the position to have raw interactions with the land: go without a tent, without sleep, without warm food. Getting cold? Start moving. Our bodies are incredible tools. They don’t need much comfort, a fact easily overlooked with puffy jackets and 3 oz. stoves. Create something beautiful, then share it with the rest of us!

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