Helicopters

Thoughts on the wilderness through the lens of a helicopter bubble, as published in Say Yes to Adventure Magazine, Dec. 2016:

syta_volume-seven_andrew-magness-2-page-001syta_volume-seven_andrew-magness-2-page-002I’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.

Fragility

ned-stark-970x545I 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.

Trails before the storm

Trails before the storm

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.

After the storm

After the storm

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.

20160711_110942

Our minds and machines may be powerful…but our bodies?

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.

20160714_112451A 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.

Happy Training

*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.