Although my island days (see part 1) were hard work, they weren’t that long. Typically I’d finally muster the will to get out the door around 9:30 and on some days was back at the hut by 3:30 or so. That leaves a lot of time for thinking. Sometimes I’d spend an extra hour or so in the sun on a ridge above camp, but much of that time was spent in the bivy. Once my laptop ran out of charge (I got through two movies, but only by fastforwarding through then end of ‘the circle’–didn’t miss much with that one) I would read the old issues of whatever magazines or newspapers were lying around (except pig hunter, just couldn’t get into it) and do plenty of journal writing. Oh, and cook and eat too. Here are a few pictures from days 2 and 3.
One of my jobs is as a pest control contractor. No, I don’t fumigate buildings or chase raccoons out of urban areas. This is pest control New Zealand style–trying heroically (and perhaps futilely) to dial back the clock and eradicate a handful of introduced mammals that threaten native (flightless) bird species like Kiwi and Kakapo. I’m lucky enough to do this work in the largest of NZ’s national parks, Fiordland National Park. And occasionally I’m super lucky enough to land a spot on a trip to one of the Park’s two big islands.
Resolution and Secretary Islands (the seventh and eighth largest islands in New Zealand) both sit in the middle of nowhere. And a decade or so ago they were both chosen as sites to try to make pest free to serve as sanctuaries for native critters that were being decimated elsewhere. After a decade of work, both are free from most of the non-natives that were threats to the indigenous birds. But both are still subject to potential reinfestation by mustelids (stoats in particular), which can make the swim from the mainland when population pressure gets high enough.
So long story short, they cut a series of tracks around the islands and lined them with kill traps every 150 meters. It’s my job to check those traps and rebait them.
This last trip I was on Secretary. Five days of work out of a tiny hut. A helicopter commute on both ends and communication once a day via inReach. Being in Fiordland, the weather is often pretty, well wet. But this last trip I got all time lucky and had 5 days of sunshine. My socks stayed dry (thanks to some fancy footwork) the entire time. Such a feat is simply unheard of–normally I’m soaked to the skin from the knees down within 10 steps out of the chopper. But I digress. It was a great trip. A great jumpstart to hill training for GodZone, and an awesome way to earn some dollars to keep food on the table back home. Because of the fine weather I even decided to carry my camera with me for the duration to share some of the vistas and document my luck. Enjoy!
I’m getting older. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got many decades of adventuring and races left in me–thousands of kilometers yet to run, bike, paddle, swim and climb. But the full ‘weight’ of my life and all it’s glory is on my shoulders–a family including two boys, several jobs (grassroots entrepreneurship ain’t easy), and cumulative injuries. All of this makes trying to achieve greater fitness in all of the disciplines my myriad ambitions demand little more than wishful thinking.
Thankfully, this last year I’ve worked hard on letting go of the idea of ‘getting better’ at things, which is a good thing because in truth I just can’t figure out how to make it happen. Sure, I could certainly get faster in something–running or biking for example–but the only way to do this, as far as I can tell, is to sacrifice the level of general proficiency I’ve developed in something else. I’ve long said (here and elsewhere) that my ultimate goal is to be able to ‘do it all’ at as high a level as possible, even if this means being less fit in a single discipline than I would be if I focused my efforts more.
And as I’ve taken this journey, I’ve realized that very little is written about the idea of maintenance in terms of fitness. Everyone (who’s writing at least) seems focused on how to improve–to run further, bike faster, lift more. This, I think, is terrible.
Because, as I see it, if we’re doing this right–if I’m doing this right–so little of our time should be spent seeking these aims. After all, I’m not a professional athlete. I just want to be fit enough to do what I want to do. How long (really?) should it take me to get to that stage?
Based on the overwhelming sense I get from the internet, it seems like it should take forever. The message boards and forums and blog posts appearing in my feed seem to be telling me that I can always get faster, go further, and be stronger–that I should always (and can always) be improving.
It’s a lie though.
To be honest, I’ve been there–here, at my ‘peak’–for years. Now I’m not saying that I couldn’t get faster if I wanted to, or be stronger, but as I mentioned, I’ve realized that–more or less–my life is, and has been for some time, in relative balance. I’ve long since achieved a level of fitness that I’m happy with–more or less–and one that enables me to do pretty much whatever little ambitious thing I desire. It’s a great place to be.
But the growth culture is pervasive. So do we somehow feed off these ideas of improvement, feeling like we’re better people when we’re actually getting better at things? Maybe that is the catch. Nobody is writing about maintaining fitness because we are creatures who are programmed by culture to want more, no matter how much we actually have. We become satisfied by achieving our fitness goals, but that satisfaction disappears quickly, and either we slide back to a state of lesser fitness so that the same goal can be achieved (and satisfy) again, or we aim to achieve more, at greater and greater personal sacrifice, until we finally can take no more and resort back to the first option. This is fitness’s version of the Hedonic treadmill. Perhaps. I’ll admit that it was hard to let go of constant attempts to improve myself. It was hard to be o.k. with the idea that I’m not going to get 11 of those slow chins* anytime soon. Ok, maybe ever. My weekly set is just going to stay right between almost getting 10 and deciding that I wouldn’t get the 11th one even if I wanted too. And to be fair–that is a pretty good effort. I’ve similarly come to terms with my mile time trial hovering between 5:35 and 5:50. My swim times are unlikely to come down much either.
It’s probable that I will train harder and more and improve my fitness in some respects leading up to events, but this sort of improvement seeking is more pointed–it has a specific goal.
The truth is that we can’t always improve. There comes a time where the amount of effort that we put towards something in a sustainable manner reaches an equilibrium with the outcome of that effort. This is the dreaded plateau that for years I struggled to get past–along with almost everyone else according to the magazines. And a problem with most mainstream training protocols is that they aim for improvement–to avoid or climb beyond the plateau. But it can’t be avoided. And once we reach it, the programs that will lead us off of it are never really sustainable and thus are doomed to fail eventually. Yes, you can get super fit following any number of high level training programs. Super strong too. But if they don’t actually fit into your ever changing life, then eventually you will give them up. I tried to overcome this fact, trust me. I mixed things up, added volume, added weight, added supplements. It only ever works temporarily.
Thankfully, those days are over.
These days I celebrate my plateau. After all, the view from up here isn’t too shabby and I’m not always struggling to climb up higher, unless I’ve actually got somewhere higher to go.
*Done with continuous tension in the muscles using an interval timer–5 seconds on the way up, 5 seconds on the way down–without releasing tension in the muscles at the bottom or locking off at the top. Try it!
I’ve been spending waaay too much time on projects around the house recently. Mostly because it’s a brand new house and there are waaay to many projects that need doing, but also partly because a little part of me gets satisfaction from ticking things off of a list. I won’t get into the psychology of list ticking (maybe that’ll be another post) but I will get into what I’ve found to be pretty different psychological approaches to life’s little problems and goals, whether they involve drill-bits and caulk or not.
In many ways there are two competing schools of thought when it comes to problem solving. There is the ‘get the right tool for the job’ school and then there is the ‘make do with what you’ve got’ school.
Can you guess which school I’m in?
Well, I’ll give you a hint. I use whatever screws are available, often substitute knives for scissors, rocks for hammers, and like to design my projects around the cuts of wood that are lying around my yard, rather than what is in the yard of the home improvement store (unless they are giving it away).
It drives my wife nuts–she’s more of a ‘get the right tool for the job’ gal. She gets it from her father–an incredible craftsman and builder who always had exactly the right type of fastener and fastening device for whatever he was doing.
It’s not necessarily that one is better overall, but in my opinion for the vast majority of people being a ‘right tool’ kind of person can make it harder to get things done, especially when it comes to certain types of projects including big endurance based efforts.
Maybe you think i’m stretching it a bit, but hear me out. In order to have all the ‘right tools’ to pursue a big multi-sport adventure, let alone to train for it, you’re going to be shelling out nearly 20 grand, especially if you’re in colder climates where things like drysuits and skis start coming into the picture. But more than the outlaid cost, having the ‘right tool’ mindset can quickly become an excuse for not doing something. I can’t compete in that triathlon because I don’t have the right bike–my shoes are mountain bike shoes, not road shoes–I’ve got an old model pack-raft/kayak/paddle. My backpack is too heavy, my ski-s are too straight. I would, if only I had the right gear/food/training program.
It is these attitudes that are a recipe for not. Not doing. Not trying. Instead, the making do philosophy, while it will occasionally lead to an epic, at least allows things to get done. Sit on top kayak for grade III? Not ideal, but it could work. Flats on a steel bike for a triathlon? You’re not going to win, but were you really going to win anyway? Making do with what you have encourages a creativity and problem solving and puts the emphasis back on what you’re doing, instead of the equipment that you’re using. And remember–whatever old, dilapidated, and out-of-date gear you’ve managed to scrape up in service of your next adventure, it was probably new and cutting edge at one point. 20 years ago people were plowing through a meter of fresh powder on those stick skis that can still be bought for $5 at thrift shops today–not taking advantage of that fresh dump because you can’t afford the latest $1K pair of boards is just a bad excuse.
In the end, there is no argument that the right tool can make things easier and/or more fun. Lighter bikes are more responsive, shaped skis float and carve with superiority, and the modern pack-raft tackles class III with much more ease than the old style boat. But what is the alternative–not doing? Exactly.
Truth be told, if I ever have a massive amount of disposable income I too will probably shell it out on the right tools and end up with a gear shed worth many times what I paid for my house. But until then, I’ll keep doing everything I want (which is just about everything) by simply making do with what I have.
There have been a few things in my life recently that have made me spend some time evaluating what I really think is important. And while most of the resulting thought has little to do with the subjects of this blog, at least a bit of it does.
Because fitness–in as much as it gives me the ability to wholly participate in and interact with this fabulous physical world of ours–is important. And for me, because I’ve enjoyed so much personal growth at the hand of what I’ve termed ‘success enabled by suffering’, the level of fitness I seek is, at least by many people’s standards, relatively high.
But how high? When it comes down to it, what level of fitness am I going to need to keep finding that optimum balance of having time and energy to focus on other aspects of my life while maintaining the physical and mental platform from which to keep chasing the benefits of epic challenges (like my latest effort, a swim between cities), and able to keep up with my two boys so that I can share in some of whatever (fingers crossed here) wild missions they come up with as they get older.
I wonder this because in the face of my recent evaluation, many of the motivations that have ordinarily sustained my drive to maintain a high level of fitness have all but disappeared. I no longer feel very competitive. The lure of forging this new and novel path–using HIIT to approach ultra endurance, has faded.
If my happiness depends somewhat on a minimum level of fitness, then by defining that minimum level I can simply use the minimum effective dose (MED) to get there and think less of training, and more of just living. And if/when my ambition returns, even if it does so spontaneously as it did last weekend with the swim, I’m well positioned to suffer my way through an epic adventure or two.
Basic Fitness Goals–to always be able:
- Run a sub 6:00 mile
- Swiw a sub 6:00 400 meter (open water)
- Strength: Perform 90 seconds each for continuous tension (CTL) chins and push-ups.
Simple and easy as.
Last Sunday, on a whim, I texted Arno to see what he was doing the following day. I’d decided rather spontaneously that it was time to tackle the mission I’d been thinking about for over a year–a swim from Te Anau to Manapouri. I’d planned on ‘getting fit’ for it and having a go in a month, but something inside me on Sunday told me I wasn’t really going to be getting fitter than I already was, and that I just needed to get it done.
With Arno available to pilot me down the 23 km or grade I river and carry my food for the journey, I had no more excuses. Details were hammered out and at 10 am on Monday I waded into the calm waters of Lake Te Anau for the first 3 km lake crossing.
One of the benefits of a spur of the moment decision to take on something somewhat epic is that you have less time to really worry about it. Sure, there was still plenty of worrying between the time Arno committed and when I started swimming, but there was only a 12 hour window for that worrying to happen in and at least some of that time was spent sleeping.
I worried about being too cold mostly. While the water temps have warmed up nicely from what they were this winter (15-ish degrees celsius vs 8!), my longest swim in ‘training’ had been roughly an hour–far short of how long I’d be immersed if I was to cover the 35 km of lake and river that lay between the towns.
Which brings me to lesson one: Most of what we worry about never happens. Depending on your source, social and psychological sciences place the ‘needless’ worry at between 85 and 92% (or thereabouts). Which means that an awful lot of mental energy is wasted on worrying about things that either we can’t control, cannot change, or that will never actually happen. In this case, most of my worry, and my pre-swim’s fitful night’s rest, were the result of such a worry. Thankfully, there was a limit in my case, temporally speaking, to how much I had to sit with this worry. Once I started my journey it’s mootness became more concrete–I was wearing what I was wearing and I’d either get too cold or I wouldn’t, so worrying about it was pointless. I could just swim.
And swim I did. A bit more than 3 km across lake Te Anau–a good solid pace to start with but nothing too ambitious. My goal was to finish first, and push second. I was feeling pretty good as I jogged the half kilometer gravel path around the control gates at the head of the river. I was an hour in and took the opportunity to grab my first fuel, some gummy powergel snacks and a couple of swigs of Raro (a New Zealand version of Tang).
The river was awesome. I’d swum the first half of its 22 km length a number of times recently and so knew it well–it’s rocks and chutes and corners. It was fast and exciting, especially the second half which I’d only swum once. I had a bit more apprehension here–this section has a few tree choked braided sections where collision with something is a real possibility and there are frequent spooky moments where carcasses of ancient trunks reach up like claws from the abyss–the river carrying you relentlessly forward over their outstretched fingers. But I had Arno as my guide (he really is a guide–regularly leading commercial packrafting trips down this section of water).
So I tried to relax and embody lesson two: go with the flow. There is simply no activity I have engaged in during my rather storied life where this lesson becomes so obvious as when I’ve been swimming down this river. Any form of resistance to the literal flow is immediately felt. The experience is visceral. The more I was able to be at ease with what was happening and save my ‘reactions’ for what was genuinely occurring, the more relaxed I was both mentally and physically. Awareness was a big part of this–in the section of the river that I knew well it meant planning ahead, understanding the nature of the flow from experience, and working with it. I lined up for the corners, allowed the current to sweep me towards the outside knowing that I wouldn’t get pushed too far, and enjoyed the speed. I didn’t fight the rapids on the surface, gasping for breath against the chaotic waves, but dove down and rode the under currents for a smoother ride. I saved my energy by stroking it out when the river turned placid and I could swim efficiently. I fought the flow only when it was absolutely necessary, when the consequences for not doing so were both unimagined and negative.
And for the part of the river where I felt uncertain, I practiced lesson three: commit to trust. While it is important to decide carefully who you are going to trust, when you’ve made a decision, commit to it. I was lucky to have Arno with me as our relationship and his water reading skills made it easy to trust him. Whenever I’d considered this section of the swim previously, even without a committed date, I’d been anxious about this section of the river. But with Arno as chaperone, I was able to relinquish that anxiety by knowing that he had my best interests at heart, would be attentive to those interests, and that as a result I could ‘let go’ of my need to control a situation that would otherwise have been very stressful. The act of trusting is linked to the ability to take risks as well–those more likely to trust in general tend to be more likely to accept a certain level of risk in their lives. And at least in my opinion, the acceptance of risk (and the inevitably resulting failures) is a key factor in a robust life. And as I finally swam out of the river mouth and into Lake Manapouri, my life certainly felt very robust.
My body, on the other hand, did not. As the adrenaline response from river section slowly faded, I became more acutely aware of how shattered I felt, and the BIG question as to how my body would hold up over the next 9 km of lake. A year ago I’d had some issues with my right shoulder that required physical therapy and it continued to bug me when I pushed too hard, even on shorter swims. By the end of the river it was already feeling pretty wrecked–would it last another hour? Three? Although I’ve got plenty of experience in land based endurance efforts, my longest swim ever was a 10 mile affair, took just over 4 hours to finish, and happened 15 years ago. It was a rather outdated litmus test from which to draw strength for what remained ahead, especially considering at the time I’d been healthier (shoulder wise), fitter (swimming wise), and even then been plagued by such severe cramping in my left elbow by the end that I swam the entire last mile with on arm.
Thankfully, all that being said, I have learned a thing or two in the intervening year, one of which I’d been reminded reminded of via a FB post recently.
Lesson four: fatigue is all in your head. Ok, maybe not all, but certainly the point when you decide that you’ve reached your limit is. When I started to really feel broken only a short distance into the final lake swim, I relied heavily on this idea. I knew from all my big adventures on terra-firma that the general pain that I was enduring was self-limiting. If I was broken it was almost certainly in a way that was repairable. The pain caused by low-impact repetitive joint use, on a single occasion (not chronic overuse such as in high volume training)–hardly ever leads to actual acute injuries. And so although the pain was great enough that I would have traded my little finger for some ibuprofen, I didn’t allow myself to listen to the part my brain that tried to tell me I should stop because I was causing permanent damage. But it wasn’t easy. The 30 minutes in between feeds seemed to stretch for hours so that I was continually convinced that Arno wasn’t keeping track of the time. One of my achilles started to cramp. Both hip-flexors threatened to join it. I altered my stroke in turns–windmilling arms to keep them straight for a while, then shortening my stroke dramatically to keep them bent. I’m not sure whether the pain even got better, but I was able to keep going. Eventually, I rounded the headland of Supply Bay and could see the finishing beach. It was still nearly an hour away, but that sight was all it took to let my head know I was going to make it. After my last feed I was close enough to make out the car my wife had dropped for us. Despite having stroked continuously for over six hours at this point, the fatigue (almost) disappeared and I felt as though I was finishing the last kilometer of a 2 km swim, not a 35 km one.
All in all, my shoulders (which I am having trouble moving today) carried me for 6 hours and 45 minutes of more or less continuous freestyle. It was an incredible experience and one I hope to offer to the public next year as a marathon swim event (www.koharacing.com). Happy training.
PostScript: In addition to the above more profound lessons, I also learned a couple of other things that bear mentioning.
The first of these is why distance swimmers almost always rely on liquid diets. I learned this the hard way as I nearly choked on my first water based feed that consisted of PowerBar energy blasts, a brand of gummy sports chew. I almost choked! Swallowing food is so much harder than swallowing liquid and the act of chewing and swallowing while swimming proved almost impossible. Thankfully, I had a couple emergency Gu’s that proved more easily consumable, and some sugared drink mix I was able to fall back on (I’d planned on primarily consuming the blasts), and it saw me through.
The second is how awesome the NoNumb swimming device is. Typically for me, after an hour of swimming my hands get cold enough for the claw to develop. I’d toyed with the idea of wearing thermal gloves, but the downside of gloves is that even the best of them take on some water and thus add a non-insignificant amount of weight the the hands. Over the course of some 15000 odd strokes, a few extra grams really matters. The NoNumb device is an ingeniously simple piece of silicone (so much so that calling it a device seems silly) that slips around your fingers to keep them together. The lack of water circulation between fingers keeps your hands warmer, and keeps the claw from making an appearance even when your hands do get cold. I’d tested it in a time trial of my standard training course, a 800 odd lap around a set of buoys, a couple of weeks ago and posted my personal best by nearly 30 seconds, so figured I’d give it a go on the swim. It worked marvelously–my fingers stayed together, my hands felt warm, and it was so comfortable that I forgot I was wearing it. Awesome. Check it out at http://nonumbsurf.com/
Success is a tricky thing. For any goal it can be defined in a way that is objective and arbitrary, or one that is more subjective but meaningful. If you’re lucky, pursuit of the goal can facilitate both measures of success. But we don’t always get lucky.
Case in point my most recent ‘UltraMental’ mission: an attempted one day circumnavigation of the Hollyford-Big Bay-Pyke route in Fiordland national Park. The lolli-pop loop follows tracks of mixed difficulty over nearly 150 kilometers and normally takes 10 days, at least according to DOC literature. I’d been intrigued by the route for more than a decade when the one day attempt appeared on one of my ‘mission’ lists back in 2006 while i spent a year working in Te Anau. With the use of a packraft, I reasoned it would have been possible to paddle nearly 100 km of the journey, including some of the more difficult sections of track, making the sub 24 hour goal attainable. But I left NZ without making an attempt.
Two years ago I returned for good, relocating to Te Anau with my family permanently. I was so excited about the opportunity to have a go that I’d had a crack at the mission before I’d even found work. My partner and I, John Kenny, left the road end at 1 pm, paddling a two person packraft. We returned to the car 26.5 hours later, exhausted, drenched, freezing, and–myself at least–very nearly broken. Close, but not quite.
Then just last weekend, I tried again. This time with three GodZone veterans, Adrian Braaksma, Neville Thorne, and Jo Williams. The objective measure of success was defined very clearly as a car to car, self-supported effort that took less than 24 hours. Clear, but arbitrary. We lauched our packrafts out of the first eddy at 5am, deep in the grip of nautical twilight, starting the journey as a team of four with a common and audacious goal.
This time, at least based on this arbitrary version, I met with success when I crossed the final swing bridge back over that starting eddy at a minute before 3:30 am, 22.5 hours later.
But it was, as Jo put it, hollow. Because not everyone crossed that swingbridge with me. Adrian had fallen ill at perhaps the furthest point of the route, somewhere between Big Bay and the upper Pyke. The audible nature of his multiple vomiting spells were like nothing I’d ever heard–deep and gutteral booms, a sharp contrast to Adrian’s normally very mild mannerisms. His legendary toughness evaporated and stunned us all. Somehow he rallied just enough to get to the banks of the Pyke before collapsing next to the river. With coaxing we got him on the bow of one of the boats where he lay in the fetal position, hands siezing up, shivering, and talking in slurs. He couldn’t keep food down. Or water. He was eerily child like–but a drunk and sick child.
Adrian rallied again during the paddle across lake Wilmot, but his upright stint in the boat lasted only minutes this time. When we hit the longer lake Alabaster it was nearly dark and we hooked Neville’s boat up to ours so we could stay together and help tow Adrian across the lake. Finally, we’d seen a faint glow from one of the windows of the hut on the Southern shore of the lake. Before that, we’d smelled the fire. It had started to rain. We carried all the gear 50 meters up the path to the shelter of the eaves over the hut’s wide deck. When I returned for Adrian he was on all fours, dry heaving. He’d wretch violently between his outstretched arms and then flop forward onto his chest to pull himself a half a meter up the beach. It looked like he was dragging hit torso through his vomit but to be honest I couldn’t tell what, if anything, was coming out of his body as a result of the violent twistings of his stomach.
I don’t actually remember how he got to the hut–did we help him? Did he finally get up and walk on his own? It all became a candle-lit blur after that. I tried to get the fire going and then someone came out of the bunkroom and helped me with a splash of stove fuel. Another camper asked what we were doing and when we explained the goal she just shook her head and gave us a look equal parts bewilderment and disgust and said, “but why?”
Then there were the decisions. Would we all remain? Would we leave Adrian on his own? If some of us pressed on, who would go? How would we communicate? How would those who remained get picked up the next day? What if Adrian couldn’t get out the next day at all? We spent nearly an hour going back and forth, the long day (the alarm had gone off at 2 am the previous morning) taking it’s toll on our collective mental facalties so that we had to repeat the slowly forming plans over and over again.
Finally it was decided that Jo and I would go–it was Jo’s car and she had work on Monday so needed to get back to Wanaka. Neville had the Delorme tracker and could send texts via satellite to help arrange a pickup. He was super keen to finish but also, as the youngest and fittest, probably had the least to prove.
After more than an hour in the hut sorting things out, Jo and I set off. It was lonely, going from four to two like that. And suddenly being in the dark, and the rain. We ran for a while until my headlamp got dim. I pulled out my spare but discovered it had been left on and was completely flat. The terrain grew rocky and so we walked for what seemed like hours. Half way to the road-end we started running again as the track improved, I followed Jo this time trying to take advantage of her brighter light. But I couldn’t quite keep up and so trailed behind, running and then walking in the soft white bubble of my torch’s lowest setting, the only one it had left. It was surreal, as it always is in such situations–the world sliding past in a two meter wide tunnel.
As the kilometers ticked by I reflected on the trip–I knew we would make it. We’d left the hut with 5 hours to go 20 kilometers. Plenty of time. But we’d split up. We’d left Adrian. And while I knew he’d be fine–or at the very least that he was in capable hands and that us staying wouldn’t have helped him at all, it just felt a little bit wrong. Yes, it was practical. It was pragmatic. There were reasons we left. Adrian himself wanted someone to keep going, to finish what we’d started.
And we did. But not really. We’d achieved the objective, arbitrary success, at the expense of the subjective, more meaningful one. I’m not saying it was the wrong decision. Adrian bounced back after some sleep and was at the road end the next day by 1 pm–no harm done. But as a result splitting the team and pressing on with Jo through the night, the whole thing, despite the time on the watch face as we stepped off the swing bridge, still felt somehow unfinished.
And I know that had I stayed, it wouldn’t have been perfect either. A piece of me would have nagged with the wonder, even as certain as it seemed, of if I would have made it, and I’d have had to plan another trip to find out.
But now I feel the need to plan another trip anyway, at least with Neville and Adrian, so that we can finish what we (all) started. Maybe next time, we’ll go even faster, and all cross that bridge in under 20 hours…together. Maybe next time the arbitrary external goals and the more meaningful internal ones can all be met, and the sense of success will be more complete. Maybe next time we’ll get lucky.
Thoughts on the wilderness through the lens of a helicopter bubble, as published in Say Yes to Adventure Magazine, Dec. 2016:
I’ve been flying in helicopters a lot recently. It’s made me realize a couple of things. To begin with, we never know what our futures hold. If five years ago someone asked me what I was going to be doing when I was 41, I might have said a lot of things, but I would not have suggested that my line of work was going to make flying over remote and spectacular scenery in a helicopter such a common occurrence that it felt ordinary and blase.
More importantly, perhaps, it has given me regular cause to think about the juxtaposition between nature/wilderness as it is experienced via media–coffee table books, go-pro clips, social media feeds and the like–and nature/wilderness as it is experienced in reality.
These experiences are separated by light years, nothing less. Wilderness/nature–stunningly rugged and remote coastlines; soaring, corniced mountain ridges; pristine lakes of impossible blue, forests of lush and vibrant fifty-shades-of-green–these things used to take my breath away. They invoked such a spectacular impression of striving, of wonder, of adventure, that I’d yearn for them. I’d look at the glossy pictures and watch the high-def videos and covet the settings and actions that were being displayed–the smooth inky water of a rugged and wave strewn coast at sunset, the majestic vista of snow covered peaks poking through a blanket of clouds, white on white.
I’d yearn for the illusion. The fantasy.
It’s much the same when travelling by helicopter. Through the clear glass of the bubble it all appears very much as it does in those crisp pages and on the HD monitor. And the first time I flew over those soaring ridges and lush vibrant forests I was filled with those same senses of longing. But then…well…then I was promptly put there. And it was cold. And wet. And the smooth undulating landscape formed by the tops of those crisp trees hid another landscape of head high ferns and tangled roots that made travel ridiculously challenging. As I exited the more or less climate controlled cabin of the chopper, my other senses had equal say, and the input they received did less to stir my soul to song and more to make it cry out in a desperate plea, “please don’t leave me here alone!”
There is nothing glossy about real wilderness. And in my experience the sense of potential that a talented photographer (especially an airborne one) can elicit via his lens is rarely, if ever, felt within its midst. Humility, sure. Fear, check. Isolation, smallness, a sense of the profound scale of our world. Of impossible effort.
Experiences shared in wilderness, in the middle of harsh, indifferent, landscapes far from influences of man’s shaping hand, are, however glue. Wilderness is a catalyst for relationships, one of several such crucibles (war is another I imagine) that can contribute to unbreakable bonds being formed with near instantaneous speed. My early experiences in real wilderness were all with company, and in retrospect maybe I kept venturing back for these companionship rewards.
But these days I make my trips alone, and alone, no such rewards are offered.
So why do I go? Why do I keep getting into that chopper, knowing that at the end of its glorious flight–the very thing that tourists pay top dollar for over and over again–a lonely and grim trial awaits? I’m not sure. I guess part of it is the money, but then there are plenty of other ways to earn a living. So there must be something else. Maybe it is the desire to feel the reality, rather than the illusion. To keep it fresh in my mind, or fresh enough, so that I can navigate this in-your-face modern world where the media consumption of everyone else’s wilderness/nature experiences is so pervasive that it is easy to feel that my life is somehow less spectacular than that of my peers. It can be easy to forget, as we wade through the magazine cover worthy photos of our ‘friends’’ last epic wilderness adventure, that there were bugs out there too. And wet tents to pack up. And shivering, sore muscles, maybe some real fear, and probably at least a few moments where they would have traded it all in for a nice cup of coffee at their favorite cafe.
But really I think it is because, illusion or not, that siren song of wilderness persists for me. As deceptive and one-dimensional as their captured images may be, those soaring ridges and rugged coastlines, those plunging rivers and tangled forests still call to me. There are these 10-second snatches that pop up unannounced a handful of times during an otherwise punishing day, rare and fleeting moments, infinitesimal fractions of the whole, where the light years of difference disappear and the illusion merges with the reality. Perhaps it is in these precious instances, where through a genuine reckoning with such a magnificent and formidable environment, the rapture of unlimited potential mixes with the gritty truth of fear,isolation, and profound humility, and a moment is formed that is just, well, worth it.
It’s time to go. My helicopter is waiting.
I had a good week last week. It was school holidays which meant my kids had two weeks off, and the first week we’d lucked into a stint as a ‘volunteer hut warden’ up at Luxmore Hut, the first of the Kepler Track’s (one of NZ’s great walks) palatial accommodations. Not only did I get to refer to myself as ‘Warden of North*’ for a whole week, which has always been a secret fantasy of mine ever since Game of Thrones, but I also got to hang out with my family in an awesome alpine environment.
We took hikes, explored caves, got dumped on by half a meter of snow, built snowmen, had snowball fights, chopped wood, read books, played games, slept in, kept cozy by the fire, cooked good meals, drank lots of coffee and drinking chocolate. It was awesome. We even improvised ways to do our body-weight training by using a broom handle suspended across two upper bunks. I even got a good run to the top of the mountain in before the mid-week storm brought the hammer down.
It was that hammer coming down that planted the seed of fragility, but it was the helicopter ride down–a 90 second trip that covered a distance that would take over half a day by non-motorized means–and the resulting reflection that saw it blossom.
As an athlete, I occasionally feel very powerful. And when I look at images of other athletes–top mountain runners for example, churning their way along knife ridges, visions of sinew and sweat and efficiency I feel their power. I quietly cultivated the feeling on the day before the snow as I ground my way up to Luxmore summit, doggedly running every step despite the steep grade, and then revelled in that sense of power as I charged back down, dancing my way across the rocky sections, slip sliding in the mud, and bending gravity to my will.
The day after the snow fell I got a bit antsy. I was up in the mountains. I wanted to run–to take the opportunity to get a big day in. Test the machine again. Feel the power. So I tried. Tammy got back from her short hike and gave me the green-light, but warned about how hard going it was. I put on the gaiters. I decided to head back up the mountain and not take advantage of her footsteps going down. The wind was blowing. It was still snowing. Adventure. Harsh conditions. I was powerful, I could do it. Sure, it would take me longer to get there–that was to be expected–but I’d get there.
I didn’t get there. I didn’t get more than 400 meters from the hut, and even that took 15 minutes. Snow stung my face. I couldn’t open my eyes to look ahead without goggles. The drifts were on occasion waist deep. It was hard going. I didn’t feel powerful at all.
I felt fragile.
The helicopter ride just cemented these feelings. Nature is really, really big. The wilderness is unforgiving. Yes, places exist where the wilderness is negotiable, where you can run and leap and travel through it with grace and ease. But those places are the exception, not the rule. For the most part, for the overwhelming majority of the undeveloped places on this planet, nature/wilderness is harsh, brutal, big, and uncompromising. We are only the powerful beings, the efficient machines of my earlier conception in these narrow places. This fraction of a fraction of the world that we have claimed as our own and modified to suit our abilities. Even places we think of as wilderness–the trail of the Kepler Track traversing it’s mountains, for example, aren’t. They offer glimpses into the wilderness. They are a degree–a shade perhaps–closer to wilderness, but only just. Our abilities, this physical power, is felt only on the backs of billions of people and millenia of reshaping the places in which we live and play. There is an arbitrariness to this. We’ve created a closed system, separate from nature, and the judgements we make about ourselves–athletic or otherwise–take place almost entirely within this closed system of human design. It is a fascinating thought.
A simple act of nature–a dump of snow–took that ribbon of trail where 48 hours before I’d felt myself a powerful being, at home and in control of this breathtaking mountain environment, suited to it’s rough and undulating terrain, up to challenge this ‘wilderness’ presented, and made it beyond me. Inaccessible. It was not mine. The work and training and experiences I’ve had did not give me power over this place, this ridge, this peak, unless things were just right–unless conditions allowed. A simple act of nature took it all away. And this wasn’t even ‘real’ wilderness.
I’ve been in real wilderness too, and reflecting of my time there I realize I’ve never felt powerful there. I’ve always felt fragile. Afraid, humble, slow, tired, and unsuited for the task. The speed and powerful feelings cultivated in the land of men do not translate. They are a world apart. Power, fitness, feelings of physical and mental achievement are only relative to our created human environment. Even in something like adventure racing, so long as we’re feeling powerful, we’re at best dashing through toy-sized sections of wilderness, or connecting areas of human creation by tenuous threads of trail passing through larger chunks. Occasionally, if ever, we actually move through wilderness/nature (and so few of us probably ever do), then there is only fragility and humility.
*Yes, I know that Luxmore hut isn’t really ‘North’ in any meaningful way (North of lake Manapouri?), but the ‘Warden’ part took me too close to worry about this niggly little detail.
Suffering, along with confidence and will, is one of the three pillars of the UltraMental Philosophy. I’ve been thinking quite deeply about suffering lately. Interestingly enough, these thoughts have typically coincided with pretty significant periods of actually experiencing suffering. I tell my wife, who wakes up at 6:15 am for a daily dose of meditation and yoga, that my long suffer-filled walks in the bush are just my form of moving meditation and a practice of being ‘present in the moment’. They last alot longer, which is why I don’t need to do it as often.
I spent the last two days in such a meditation. It was pretty awful. I was working for a new contractor putting in tracking tunnels in the Roa Burn. I won’t go into all the details about what tracking tunnels are or where the Roa Burn is, except to say that it is in the middle of nowhere in the remote wilderness and that the task involved trekking up and down a bush covered mountainside with no trails for 7-8 hours a day. While this might sound like fun–and on some other trips has almost been–the Roa Burn was definitely not fun. To begin with, the weather was awful. 10 cm of slushy snow was present on the tops when I stepped out of the chopper, and it was drizzling from the inside of an massive cloud. It rained all day–a rain that is only a few degrees above freezing. The hillside was steep and the bush dense. I crawled a lot. My gloves were wet through within minutes to the point that I could make a fist every 10 seconds and wring the water out. I was soaked to the bone within 20 minutes, my clothes weighing more than twice what they did in the chopper (yes, fleece will absorb water…). And I was just getting started.
Over the next 8-ish hours as I baited the 50 tracking tunnels, I traversed gullies, descended bluffs, crossed thick swamps, and generally negotiated kilometers of horrible, sodden country where the portion of steps I took on easy, open, level ground is most accurately described by ten to the negative two (10-2). Travelling 100 meters could take more than 10 minutes. Seriously. And then, towards the end of the day, tendonitis in my left elbow (of all places) started flaring up–I’m guessing from using my arm to take weight and/or the near constant grabbing of branches/trees for support.
It was hard going, but then what choice did I have? The thoughts came and went. This is crazy. People could die out here. What do the early stages of hypothermia feel like? It was ugly. But then there were other thoughts: It’s just an experience. What ifs don’t matter–right now you can keep going–the goal of camp is still achievable and time will pass and this experience of cold/wet/pain will pass too. And of course they did. I made camp, and the experiences changed.
I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the final river, slipping and falling in up to my waist (which honestly hardly mattered at this point), and finding my overnight bag that had been delivered that morning by the chopper. I set up the tent in the rain (one of my least favorite things to do) just at dusk. I stripped out of my wet clothes and was attacked by sandflies. But then I was in my sleeping bag, and eventually, warm. It was time to eat. Unfortunately, the job offer had came at the last minute–Sunday afternoon for Monday morning departure. I’d been spending time with the family so opted not to take my leave to go prepare and just ended up scrounging food from the pantries after the kids were in bed and figuring I’d make it a ‘hardship’ mission–besides, the boss had made it sound pretty easy on the phone–so I was light on food too. I’d had a banana in the chopper, carried a HydroFlask of hot chocolate and licked the peanut butter off the spoon after baiting each tunnel, but otherwise hadn’t stopped to eat. Thanks to my meager rations I experienced hunger too.
I got plenty of sleep–well, rest anyway. Sleep was difficult as it took significant ‘attention’ to try to settle my mind. It was raining outside. My tent leaked a little bit. I was going to have to put back on cold, wet clothes in the morning and do it all again, only uphill. My meditation practice changed gears and focused on letting go of tomorrow’s suffering because, well, it didn’t really exist. I made a pillow out of my HydroFlask, my rather moist fleece hat and a bit of toilet paper in a plastic bag,
I made it through the next day too–using tricks learned over years of racing and adventuring. Chunk things out–one small goal at a time. Break things down. When the bush was thick and progress seemed to halt I’d try to remember that there is no permanence. I will, however slowly, get to better ground. And then when I had it, I’d practice appreciating the few meters of easy going, knowing it was bound to be temporary as well. The hours ticked by, surprisingly quickly, something that means my mind was, more or less, where it should be. It was a pretty good session, considering the circumstances.
Well, until the end–when I heard the chopper heading up the valley towards where I stood, exposed, drenched, shivering, blasted by the wind and rain. I couldn’t see it because the fog was too dense. My overnight gear was back at the river mouth, a 4 hour bush bash away in daylight, assuming food, daylight, energy–the former of which was completely gone while the others were severely depleted. Because then, although it sounded like it was right there, the sound started to fade, until it disappeared.
My wife says if I was truly enlightened I would have accepted such a turn of events, and what they meant, as simply another state of being. But I basically panicked inside.
Thankfully, the chopper did eventually return, doorless (for visibilities sake) and passengerless (just in case). I still have some work to do, I suppose, but I think it can wait until after a week of hot showers.