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Can We Retain the “Wild” in Wilderness?

Posted by admin | May 23rd, 2007 | Filed under Outdoor Sport, Personal Reflection

Hood_Thorne.gifWhenever the sun shines in Portland we’re treated to a fantastic view of Mt. Hood. Its close proximity and relatively unchallenging standard route lead to over 10,000 people climbing it every year. Earlier this winter, as most of the media-watching public now know, it wasn’t so sunny on Mt. Hood. One classic Pacific Northwest storm led to the rescue of three trapped climbers while another led to the death of three others. The former party carried a signaling device while the latter chose not to.

This is anguishing stuff for sure, but now the state legislature, in their wisdom, has introduced a bill that would require climbers to carry an electronic signaling device when they’re on Hood between November and March. Drastic circumstances generally call for drastic action and in this case the logic seems straightforward. Protect the growing numbers of people who are heading into the backcountry from themselves by ensuring they can be rescued when things go wrong. I’m dubious about this, for practical as well as philosophical reasons.

Climb-Hood.gifThe best thing to carry with you into the backcountry is experience, judgment, humility, personal responsibility, trusted climbing partners and the appropriate equipment to ensure you can be self-reliant in any circumstance. Reliance on technology can actually dull your judgment and cause you to take risks you may not otherwise take. The over-reliance on technology can also lead to rescue teams being put at unnecessary risk given the possibility of calling for help when you might be able to extricate yourself without assistance.

Then there’s a bigger question: Why go into the wilderness in the first place? I’ve always been drawn to the wilderness because of its wildness, its sublime nature and the sense of communion one experiences when attempting to ascend a peak or paddle a river. Technology has enabled many things but there’s something about the inherent risk and grandiosity of scale associated with stepping into wilderness that reminds me, in a fundamental way, of what it means to be human. In a world where alienation is all too common, we should leave the technology at home in order to leave the wild in wilderness.

8 Responses to “Can We Retain the “Wild” in Wilderness?”

  • May 23, 2007 at 3:18 pm | Mark says

    Ian,

    I too am torn about this type of solution. Will the technology make us forget common sense? Human nature tells me it will create as many issues as it solves in the end.

    Now the other question is, with or without the tracking mandated, should the public be paying the \’full\’ bill for rescues? Not to be heartless, but I feel that there is often no accountability from those who get into trouble when they throw common sense out the window.

    I don\’t necessarily think they should foot the bill everytime, but if they feel no expectation of financial responsibility (much like the current war in Iraq and the average American), will they actually use good judgement in the first place?

    I don\’t know that there is a perfect solution, but taking on one\’s own responsibility is a good start…cheers for the thought provoking topic!

  • May 23, 2007 at 10:18 pm | Nat Russell says

    Subjective and objective danger. There lies the rub. Knowing the difference is the difference. Subjective dangers are training grounds. Objective dangers are where you (should)stand alone.

  • May 24, 2007 at 9:42 am | A. L. Cameron says

    There are so many levels here.

    I’m not sure it is wise in any arena for the government to get minutely involved in protecting people from themselves. Regulations that do so may tend to dampen the process of learning individual responsibility which is key to society functioning at a high level.

    On another level I am disappointed in the use of the word “should” in regards to almost anything, but in particular to your value judgment about taking technology into the wilderness. There are many reasons why one might want to climb Mt. Hood. For some people under some conditions technology may be enabling of an experience that cannot be had any other way. As long as it does not harm the environment or limit the options of others, I am happy for each individual to make an informed choice. So by all means help educate us to the issues, but let us decide for ourselves.

  • May 26, 2007 at 11:50 am | ian says

    A.L.

    You are right. Its the legislative “must” that I object to. Technological advances have in many ways enhanced my experience of wilderness. So, as you said “let us decide for ourselves.

    Ian

  • June 1, 2007 at 6:33 am | Steve says

    We just finished a river trip in northwest maine on the undammed St. John River. We brought no technological devices (except for our digital cameras) and were refreshed at the simplicity of being immersed in the North Maine woods for a week. Our good judgement and experience kept us safe and we were prepared to deal with problems (didn’t hurt that there is no cell coverage along the river either).

    However, the members of my group and myself are all in our forties. We grew up playing outside without the distraction of today’s digital lifestyle. Many kids today are far more detached from wild places beacause of things like the internet, satellite tv, cell phones and x-boxes. In order engage these “millenials” with wild places, I think we need to do it within the framework of today’s digital culture, which may mean accepting some use of technology in the backcountry.

    If you’re over forty, try this experiment with a typical 16 year old. Say something like: “when I was sixteen, we were out climbing our paddling every night and weekend that we could. We lived outdoors, and we didn’t need a cell phone.” The typical response to such a statement usually is, “yeah, so what.”

    We need to find ways to break through the “so what”, or we will soon have a whole generation of young adults who are not only completely ignorant about nature and the wild, but who frankly don’t give a shit. What happens to the wild then?

  • June 5, 2007 at 9:53 pm | Ian says

    Steve,

    I appreciate your pov. My experience suggests there is something essential and vital about a true experience of wilderness. My one time mentor Willi Unsoeld who was an educator, philosopher and accomplished climber talked about the fact that we’re alienated from our bodies, our feelings, ourselves and one another because we’re alienated from nature. Willi said: “… I would suggest at this point that the alienation from nature constitutes the key, and I’m
    declaring it THE key to the other alienations.” His thesis stemmed from his own experience in the mountains. Those experiences taught him that a direct encounter with nature, in all its raw, sacred splendor, created a new ability to relate to oneself and consequently the broader community. So, that begs the question: can you have a true wilderness experience if your wired to the not so wild world?

    Ian

  • June 6, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Alex says

    Ian,

    Your post triggered a thought about a recent experience I had with technology in the backcountry. After many years not wearing a watch”my cell phone has become my timepiece in day to day life”and in preparation for a climb up Rainier, I bought a new battery for an alitmeter watch I’ve had lying around. Having a reliable timepiece in the mountains is one of the essentials, and on the day of the climb it definately proved useful. But reflecting on my experience, I wonder now how it changed the climb to know, within 10 vertical feet, how much progress I had made, and how far I had to go.

    Much of the mystery and excitiement I derive from my time in the mountains is a result of the uncertainty of the enterprise. By uncertainty I don’t mean danger, but rather the challenge and inherently unknown outcome of an adventure in the wildnerness. For me, being in the backcountry means accepting that many factors are beyond my control, and understanding that only through good judgement”often in the form of turning around”can I ensure safety.

    At the risk of generalizing, I beleive it’s this reliance on personal judgement that makes experiences in the backcountry rewarding. As the late alpinist Jean-Christophe Lafaille wrote, “I find it fascinating that our planet still has areas where no modern techology can save you, where you are reduced to your most basic”and essential”self. This natural space creates demanding situations that can lead to suffering and death, but also generate a wild, interior richness. Ultimately there is no way of reconciling these contradictions. All I can do is try to live within their margins, in that narrow boundary between joy and horror. Everying on this earth is a fragile balancing act.”

  • March 19, 2008 at 11:44 am | Rap says

    Subjective and objective danger. There lies the rub. Knowing the difference is the difference. Subjective dangers are training grounds. Objective dangers are where you (should)stand alone.

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