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Solo trips into the wilderness

Paul Andersen

I have my route. I have my favorite rock. I have my place. They are all in a wild place and I go there by myself. I carry a stout stick on the off chance of a mountain lion encounter. Otherwise, I am alone, with no radio and no cell phone.

My risks aren’t as great as the risks others take, mainly because my sojourns are in my back yard in the Frying Pan Valley. I could probably shout loudly enough from my various perches to attract the attention of neighbors.

Still, the risks are there. One of my routes skirts a high cliff where loose rocks sometimes fall, usually kicked off by bighorn sheep. One ascent features a chimney climb; another requires three-point moves on a vertical rock face where a fall would be serious. Adding an element of predation, mountain lion tracks show up each spring on a particular ridge I walk.

Still, my solo adventuring is not very remote, and that is the difference between my peregrinations and those of Aron Ralston, who has received worldwide recognition for severing part of his own arm in the interest of self-preservation.

“OK,” said a friend at a recent dinner party. “Before we talk about anything else, we have to talk about this guy who cut off his arm.” What ensued was a series of awed reactions and wild speculations about Aron and his epic, coyotelike amputation.

Everybody wonders how a person could endure the self-inflicted pain of whittling through his arm with a pocket knife. The feats that followed – rappelling down a cliff and hiking five miles – all with blood loss, hunger, thirst and some measure of shock, culminate in a staggering display of superhuman will.

The story, which I predict is soon to appear as a cover story for Outside Magazine (complete with photos of the severed limb), is an ultimate survival tale akin to Jack London’s gripping portrayals of the man/beast. Remarkable for its gruesome overtones, Aron’s story elicits ultimate respect and heart-rending compassion.

Already, the site of Aron’s entrapment has become a mecca that is drawing curious journalists and hero worshipers to Bluejohn Canyon in search of the fateful boulder and perhaps a spill of blood. This is where solo adventuring ends and a full-blown media circus brings the eyes of the world to a man’s gravest decision point.

My cousin in the Midwest sent me an e-mail asking if Aron had a “death wish” for the risks he has taken. The immediate suspicion is that solo adventuring is a kind of madness that cheapens life. That’s the wrong conclusion.

Jesus and Moses also soloed in the desert wilderness. Thoreau did it at Walden Pond. John Muir sat in the tops of swaying redwoods during thunderstorms. Everett Ruess, an artist and mystic who was enthralled with soloing in wild nature, became a legend when he mysteriously disappeared in the desert Southwest in 1936.

A fascinating book on the subject is “Into the Wild” by John Krakauer, which describes the fatal exploits of Chris McCandless, who perished in Alaska. The fact that death is often heralded as the ultimate result of solo adventuring is a sensational approach, and one that provokes fascination.

Those who solo successfully are not often the subjects of worldwide awe. Harvey Butchart, who pioneered dozens of routes in the Grand Canyon, many of them solo, lived to be an old man. Colin Fletcher, an author who specialized in solo hiking, described his revelations on numerous successful adventures.

Much of the American West was explored by solo adventurers, as were many of the vast, wild spaces of the earth. Consider John Colter’s legendary traverse through Yellowstone, or Jim Bridger’s escapades. Look at Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn. Rather than a death wish, soloing provided these adventurers with a vivid experience that made their lives rich and incredibly fulfilling.

For me, soloing is about a personal relationship with geology, gravity, climate, weather, the flora and fauna, the body, mind and spirit. It provides a deeply intimate communion with nature and with the self. It requires thought, commitment, judgment, innovation, flexibility and self-reliance. Solo adventuring is a deeply personal expression of freedom, confidence and trust.

When Aron is finally interviewed – or writes his own book – he may conclude that he was never more alive than when he sliced off his arm, rappelled down that cliff and rescued himself from the brink of death. He may not know it now, but in retrospect, his near-death ordeal may be the culmination of his life.

Paul Andersen thinks soloing in wilderness is a deep meditation on existence. His column appears on Mondays.


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