Wilderness Workshop’s chosen weapon for conservation? Story time. | AspenTimes.com

Wilderness Workshop’s chosen weapon for conservation? Story time.

by Andrew Travers

Rallying to the cause for conservation, a watchdog and lobbying organization like Carbondale's Wilderness Workshop might rouse the faithful with statistics about disappearing wildlife habitat, impending effects of climate change and mass extinction or the promise of the incoming Trump administration to expand gas drilling on public lands.

The nonprofit, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, does plenty of that in its day-to-day work. But not on this night.

At its WildFeast fundraiser on Nov. 16, Wilderness Workshop instead harnessed the power of story to honor the wild places it protects. A collaboration with the Justice Snow's Writ Large storytelling series, the tender evening was hosted and curated by Alya Howe. Between the courses of a locally sourced dinner by Chef Jonathan Leichliter, five locals shared true tales of transcendence, humor, pain, loss, fear and humility in the great outdoors.

Author and Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen spun a taut tale of two hikes. As he and his teenage son guide a motley crew to the summit of Mount Sopris, he recalled, his wife, her friends and a dog had a bloody encounter with a mountain lion elsewhere in the local forest.

"The wilderness is unpredictable and it's that unpredictability, a self-willed landscape, that makes wilderness so alluring to many of us," he said. "Because in a world that's being controlled more and more by human beings, to have that free expression of nature is something that's very important to a lot of people."

Lindsay Gurley told of a solitary month-and-a-half-long road trip around the west and the life-altering moment of finding herself alone, disoriented and dehydrated ­— yet content — on a peak in Death Valley, California. That experience, she said, led her to a life in these mountains working for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and as a life coach.

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"It was in that moment that I realized that not only am I a part of the wilderness but the wilderness truly, truly is part of me," she said.

Aspen Mountain ski patroller Elissa Rodman offered a poetic evocation of suffering through the Grand Traverse last winter, when a hellacious blizzard cut off the classic mountaineering race's route between Crested Butte and Aspen. She talked about the human bonds forged in the brutal endurance test and the "the sweet savor of challenge."

Booting up a final pitch as she and her partner returned to Crested Butte, she recalled: "As we crossed the finish line, we looked at each other, crying — and it wasn't because it was finally over. It was because we had arrived, we'd done it together."

Mountaineer Mike Marolt told of one of his first major ascents, in 1997 in the Karakoram in Pakistan, when he hallucinated voices of encouragement during his lowest moments, and explained what's pushed him to the world's highest peaks in the two decades since: "People don't understand that it isn't about the accomplishments. It's about being out in the wilderness. … That's an energy that makes me appreciate the gifts I've been given, that we've all been given living here."

Actor David Ledingham told of moving to Aspen before sixth grade, being shunned by his schoolmates and finding that nature embraced him as his "first friend." Later, tramping around the South Pacific as a young man, he recalled a harrowing ascent of Mount Cook in a two-day storm, as he was grieving the untimely death of his brother.

Wilderness, he said, "gives me a pat on the back or maybe an arm around the shoulder and says, 'Thanks for coming up here and doing what you did to make it this far, and now we're going to show you this incredible view.' It was as if the glacier was showing me its soul. And I thought my brother might have been in that storm, urging me to go on in a way that he couldn't."

atravers@aspentimes.com

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