Learning Your Craft: There Are No True Life Hacks for Life Itself. Do the Work.
Canada is a vast, gorgeous place, full of wilderness as well as sophisticated population centers. I’ve had the chance to see bits of it, but only bits. From Vancouver Island to the lovely arts town of Nelson, BC, to Halifax where I’ve done programs for women business owners, Canada is a massive playground with something for everyone.
Especially those who love the outdoors.
The Canadians have their own version of Outside Magazine, known as Explore: Live the Adventure. Like the Santa Fe-based adventure magazine Americans read, Explore discusses gear, tips for safe trips, and personal stories.
One of their recent pieces has led me to sign up for a month of horseback riding next summer with a NatGeo speaker and adventurer in far northern BC (Wayne Sawchuk, MK Adventures)
Explore is like Outside, in that much of what they publish is evergreen. So the mags hang out around my house, inviting quiet perusal.
The other day, an article from the Spring 2017 issue caught my eye, especially in light of recent Medium stories about people who demand short cuts rather than actually doing the real work of learning a skill.
Writer Will Gadd, whose column Gadd’s Truth tackles topics of how we show up in the wilderness, spoke to the twin challenges of how so many of us want to head to the hills but also don’t always take the time to prepare for the hills.
This has created considerable controversy in the US. More and more first responders are exhausted by Uber-like calls to come save someone who is lost barely a mile into back country. Hikers who head to extreme locations without the slightest clue of what they need to survive.
As Gadd points out, you can’t build a bridge without going through the rigorous process of becoming an engineer. The very real hazards of avalanches, extreme weather and other inherent dangers of Nature are the same for pro and rookie alike.
Therein lies the problem.
Gadd points out that someone who has undergone considerable training in avalanche safety has a better chance of survival; most rookies don’t. The trained guide or professional knows how to read weather, snow, and avalanche dangers. He or she has developed their craft. The rookie heads out over pristine snow, blissfully ignorant.
Even those who have taken courses can make the sometimes lethal mistake of assuming they know plenty enough. They head out with a head full of steam only to come back in a body bag.
The sheer beauty, the implicit invitation to experience the greatest adventures that our world has to offer are very hard to resist. I sure can’t. However I would no more don shoulder pads and trot out onto an NFL field to take on a 6'5" , 350-lb. defensive tackle than I would head into the high country without solid training, experience, and a great deal of humility.
This is where we run into trouble.
Anyone can toss a pack on their shoulders and hike up to a nearby fourteener in Colorado. The very accessibility of these beautiful places is part of their attraction.
In a telling article in The Sky Above Us by Vicki Parker, she relates the following grim fact: The largest percentage of deaths for years have been consistently attributable to three things: lack of knowledge, lack of experience, and poor judgment. In fact, deaths related to lack of knowledge and experience by far outnumber deaths attributed to falls.
And this: While the exact number of hikers nationwide may be an unknown, the NPS reported 3,582 search and rescue (SAR) incidents in 2011 and 2,876 in 2012. More recently, the NPS reported 2,348 in 2013 and 2,658 in 2014. On average, 35 SARs resulted in a hiking-related fatality. Hiking injuries overall totaled 817 in 2011; 922 in 2012; 826 in 2013; and 829 in 2014. This excludes some categories which are still technically hikers such as “Hunting — Gathering.” And bear in mind — this is just the NPS’ statistics. The Bureau of Land Management and US Forestry Service’s numbers are not reflected here. https://skyaboveus.com/climbing-hiking/Whats-Killing-Americas-Hikers.
The problem is that given the technical nature of some our peaks, not anyone knows what to take, what to do, and when to back the hell down.
Even the best in the world die: https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/14/asia/nepal-mount-gurja-nine-bodies-found-south-korea-climbers/index.html. This happens regularly, as more and more of the world’s elite climbers take on dangerous peaks, attempt to break records and scale yet more difficult mountains.
I get the attraction. I also get the desire to have the photos, the epic stories. I get the seduction of thousands of likes for a photo like the one above.
Too many of us are unwilling to put the time into apprenticeships. When we are under someone’s competent wing, that’s when we learn the real hacks. The real tricks to staying alive. How to build a snow cave, for example. What to do if a grizzly attacks. How to find food if we run out. How to simply stay alive.
There is no fast way to do this. No pill or software download which imbeds this kind of knowledge and experience. We have to do the work. Period.
Why? Because only when we fail enough, fall down enough, get our asses handed to us on a platter enough, do we genuinely understand just what we’re up against.
Gadd writes about a time when he and his brother took on Alberta’s Mount Athabasca, a huge peak in the Columbia icefields in winter. That almost cost them their lives. “We were willfully ignorant, and arrogant about our own skills, and that is the root of many mountain accidents.” One of my closest friends has a very similar story.
In his early twenties, he and a best friend tossed some things together and hiked, without any planning, to a very high peak in late Colorado summer. They got caught in a blizzard. Their tent tore, dumping piles of snow onto their down sleeping bags. They got soaking wet in sub-zero weather and winds. They barely made it down the mountain before stumbling, of all things, into a Forest Ranger’s hut.
Interestingly, that same man, now in his sixties, recently went hiking into a remote area in a National Park along the Borneo shoreline. Alone. The sign said don’t. He did. In a few hours when the tide came roaring in, he was desperately lost, exhausted, up to his thighs in water and stumbling over mangrove knees. It was only by sheer luck that he heard people not far away, called out for help and was retrieved.
This is a man who knows better. He’s no athlete. Yet still. Yet still.
Hubris knows no age.
There are three phases to our development in any skill: Apprenticeship, Journeyman, and Mastery. The compulsion to bypass any or all of these and go straight to Mastery is sadly, very common. It also kills when it involves adventure sports.
While I understand the desire to skip the hard shit and go straight to the head of the line (Impress your friends!! Be superior!), I am saddened by the lack of respect for what it takes to gain true Mastery.
Look, I’d like to be a hotshot. Seen as uber competent. Admired by all.
Of course I would.
Here’s where I differ with those who slap a few KIND bars in their packs, their iPhones and perhaps a windbreaker to head into the wilds.
Before I journey to northern British Columbia next year, I will be studying the terrain. The weather. The guide and I will be exchanging many emails about contingencies. Gear requirements. What can, and has, gone wrong before and how to prepare.
I will be training steadily, just as I always do. For example, to prepare for very steep descents while leading a 1500-lb animal. Test out my gear and learn how to toss up my tent even in high wind and rain. Ride regularly to ensure that my horse skills are the best they can be. Pack every single piece of gear and potential backups in case stuff gets lost.
Because stuff does get lost on trips like this. It’s happened plenty of times.
By the time I leave I will have done every single thing I can to be ready. I still won’t be, because as I’ve found out, Mother Nature has one hell of a sense of humor. Even in July, and especially that far north, a blizzard can slap us at any time. My horse may trip and skid over my skinny ass on the way down a pass.
Where we’re going to be, there are no hotels, motels, hospitals. Nothing. No roads, no landing sites for helicopters. No wi-fi, cell phone towers.
My chances of survival will be vastly better than too many who want the experience without paying the price of admission.
That’s in part because I’ve done plenty of these kinds of trips. Been severely injured. Handled extremely dangerous situations.
Had my ass handed to me on a platter.
I’ve done my apprenticeship. Still a journeyman. At 65, I am well aware of my limitations.
Never would I head out with the assumption that can’t happen to me.
It has. It may again. I will be ready for it as much as I can be.
I love Gadd’s final sentence in his piece The Craft: “Even if you don’t plan on becoming a professional, working towards a pro-level of understanding and truly acquiring the craft will make the mountain arena a safer place.”
This holds true whether you want to be an artist, an adventurer, an author. A cyclist, a speaker, a software engineer.
Do the work.