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.