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.

The Perks of Over (winter) Training.

Over-winter-training back in North Dakota a few years ago--a place that takes the concept to a whole other level.

Taking over-winter-training to another level in North Dakota, 2011.

I typically hate training outdoors in winter, particularly when embracing more high intensity efforts. And particularly when I’ living someplace where it actually gets cold. And since I do live somewhere where it gets cold…

Last winter, I ended up buying a rather expensive gym membership (everything is rather expensive in New Zealand) and gutted it out on treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals and stationary bikes for five minutes at a time. It was epic. But it was still cold (apparently heat, too, is expensive–so much so that the gym membership didn’t include it).

So when winter rolled around this year I just manned up and stayed outside. Thankfully it was relatively mild and I only occasionally had to face challenging conditions like freezing rain, but it was still cold none-the-less.  Which meant that lungs burned badly, joints ached, and muscles felt sluggish as I raced along the final straight-away on my 4.5 km mountain bike time trial or rounded the last bend on my last 400 track repeat.

But I stuck with it, set reasonable expectations, and low and behold, it is suddenly spring.

Today it was 17 degrees and sunny (about 63 F for all you Americans and Brits) as I shook the legs out in preparation for my mile time trial.  I wasn’t looking forward to it.  It was desperately rushed and last minute. But on the plus side I could run shirtless for the first time since April.

I took it easy on the way out, giving myself time to get into it.  As I passed half way I still felt pretty good.  My lungs weren’t burning.  My skin didn’t sting. I hadn’t once registered an achy joint. I cruised down the finishing straight, happy that it had been relatively painless because I’d really been dreading it.  All winter the time trial was the hardest of my rotating HIIT runs.  It usually felt horrible by a minute in and I’d just hang on for the rest, wanting to dry heave at the end. And I’d always feel the rawness of stretched or dry or  broken alveoli (whatever it is that causes that awesome post HIIT cold weather burning of the lungs) with every deep breath right through until bedtime.

But this time around a combination of low expectations and higher temperatures made for a matching of my personal best, all without what felt like a personal best effort.  And that, in my opinion, is one of the unexpected perks of over (winter) training.


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.


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.

Lessons from the field

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters.  My second time up for the day...

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters. My second time up for the day…

I’ve spent the last three weeks out in the field. For me that meant a week as an outdoor instructor at a pair of all girls camps (three dozen 14 year old girls, oh my!), a week as a guide on a 6 day, 150 km long pack-rafting trip, and most of a week as a parent helper at a pair of overnight primary school camps with my two boys. The first two weeks were too important financially to skip, and the last one was pretty critical to maintaining the work-family balance.  But these weeks were pretty also pretty key training weeks my lead up to GodZone, this years “A” race for me.  In fact, they lay 7, 6, and 5 weeks out respectively–prime training time.

Initially I struggled to decide whether to accept the offers of work, fearing that it would impact my training.  But in the end the dollars were too hard to turn down and I decided to try to take the work. Same deal when upon return from that pack-rafting trip my boys informed me they wanted ME to come to both of their camps. I initially thought only of what workouts I’d miss and started, by default, rationalizing why their mom should go instead.  But in then end I couldn’t refuse. I just sucked it up and did my best to fit the training around these priorities and in doing so got quite an education.

Week 1 'training' camp accommodations.

Week 1 ‘training’ camp accommodations.

The first week’s work entailed daily hikes of 2-3 hours, as well as leading lots of “ABL” (adventure based learning) activities.  It also involved lots of singing and screaming and organizing and talking with the other teachers. It was exhausting.  Since I was getting paid to lead the walks and manage the activities, my training window was 6 to 7:30 am.  No problem for my wife, but a major problem for me, as I’m hardly a morning person.  To make matters worse the camp was set in Deep Cove, a stunningly beautiful spot in Fiordland New Zealand that also happens to be one of the wettest spots in the world.  It was almost always raining.  For someone who doesn’t like getting up early to begin with, getting up early to train is pretty hard.  Getting up early to train in rain that is measured annually in meters is damned near impossible.  But then again, so might be finishing GodZone.  I managed the former by hoping it might help me manage the latter.


early mornings on the water. Great paddle training!

It was actually pretty good AR training.  Headlamps, mud and water, darkness, and hills. Big hills.  I was so exhausted by the early start coupled with the near constant activity that I wasn’t able to do anything fast, but I did do it.  The same went for my training while guiding.  Even though the trip was relatively easy for me, it still covered some 140 km over six days.  I added an extra 16km on day two when I had to choose between an afternoon nap (the day’s seven hours of travel had ended by noon) or a trail run.  A fartlek in packrafts on day 5, blasting from the last of the three clients to the front on the lake paddle, served as an attempt at higher intensity work, the first attempt in during the period in question.  My back got knackered–a heavy ill-fitting pack and the long hours in the boat followed by the hunched walking position and crappy hut mattresses.  But I soldiered on, pushing the clients through torrential rain (a third of a meter over two days!) and accross swollen rivers.

And then this most recent week–full days of leading hikes and kids activities on the beach, complete with atrocious food (the food situation gradually got worse over the three weeks…), and heaps of sandflies.  A super cold night that reached zero degrees (celsius) with me in a 10 degree bag kept me from getting much sleep before being joined just after six AM by my teammate for an hour uphill run before the kids woke up.  Then I went up the mountain again the next day once they went to bed.  For lack of other options I did a 30 minute tempo paddle in a tiny packraft (scout) and a couple of 500 meter time trials on an inflatable SUP.

It’s been a complete departure from anything I’ve done before, particularly my normal way of training.  I’ve been very busy.  Very physically busy (unusual for me) for so long now.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  1. Relationships make training long hours very hard (for me).  I always feel like i’m choosing racing over relationship when I train too much.  This is why HIIT works so well for me in general–I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing time with my partner, or attention to my partner and family for an unreasonable amount of time.
  2. HIIT, at least my version of it, isn’t really compatible with even a reasonable level of other (physical) activity.  I found it virtually impossible to do any significant HIIT over the past three weeks. My levels of activity, both physical and mental, were WAY too high.  The motivation was gone to work that hard.  I suspect that even if I would have tried my performances would have been sub-par, but in truth it was just impossible to try.  Moderate/tempo pace work was the best i could hope for, but in light of everything this became pretty satisfying.
  3. Nutrition isn’t unimportant.  But it’s not that important.  My diet was pretty good the first week (and there were plenty of calories).  That being said I didn’t eat and drink during any workouts, even ones that were 90 minutes long.  I also didn’t eat on any of the hikes. I did eat lots during meals though.  The second week, I forgot my lunches (long story) and so had only a breakfast of porrige before 6-8 hours of near constant activity (low-moderate intensity). This would sustain me fine until my freeze dried dinner.  All in all I was probably taking in 2500 or so calories a day, and burning far more. I still felt good and strong on this strategy. The final week the food was crap. Frozen meat, white bread, and lots of ‘baking’ (cookies, brownies, etc).  The first overnight I ate tons of the stuff and even though I exercised, I felt like crap.  Not just physically, but mentally too–just a real funk. But the second overnight I brought my own food in and had the willpower to resist the baking.  The exercise didn’t necessarily go any better but the mood was night and day different.  Food for thought.
  4. It’s HIIT and nothing else or no HIIT for me.

Happy training!

Success…well almost.

nopicIt’s been a couple of weeks since the big holly-day mission and I think I’m mostly recovered.  It was great fun and I ended the day and two hours (it took us about 26.5 hours, car to car) suitably shattered.  The last 10k I suffered from IT band pain that seemed determined to stop me in my tracks–all this in a full on fiordland rainstorm that left even the most expensive gore-tex as effective as a cotton t-shirt.  My partner was stronger than me on the foot sections and this allowed me to really reach my limit which was the plan all along.

The paddling sections were brilliant, the demon trail was epic as expected, and much of the most difficult to find parts of the route were encountered in the darkness.  We got lucky, barely squeaking by around Long Reef Point  just after high tide.  John also got lucky that the massive sea lion that he surprised and who barked and lunged at him as he passed a meter in front of where it lay under a rock overhang was a female and not a more territorial and aggressive male.

We got lost twice–once for about an hour or so looking for the track from the North end of Big Bay heading toward the Pyke Valley.

By the end I had elbow tendonitis, the IT band issue, chaffed nipples, a chaffed butt-crack, a raw lower back from pack-rub, chaffing at the very top of my inner thigh/groin from the hem of my undergarments (to the point of even a bit of bleeding), and size-able blisters on both pinky toes.   All the discomfort was of the self-limiting sort thankfully, but I did have to do some pretty serious mental gymnastics to keep running at all during the last 20K back to the car.   [It’s interesting too to note that ‘running’ at this point was predictably more of a shuffle than a run–perhaps movement speeds shifted from 5 to 7 kph (3 to 4.5 mph)… but over the course of that distance such a seemingly small gain in speed is quite significant.]

The bridge back to the car park finally came, an hour after I started hoping it would.  And after changing into dry clothes in a damp porta-potty and sitting in front of the car heater on full blast to stop the incessant shivering (the result of being soaked to the bone and the inability after such a long day to produce any of my own body heat without voluntary muscle movement–which I no longer wanted to produce!), John and I were even able to split shifts to drive the two hours home in time for dinner.

Sorry – no pictures of the trip.  It was so cutting edge we couldn’t admit the weight of a camera.  Or maybe I just forgot it on the dash.

Mission #1: Getting one under the belt

A week ago I managed to get away for the day with local Te Anauian, Jarod, for an adventure.  It was great to finally be out in the bush and not just looking at maps.

Then plan was to hike up Mistake Creek (in the Eglington Valley), around the North end of Consolation peak, down the Melita valley, then pack-raft to the Southern end of lake Gunn and down the Eglington river back to the car.

View Larger Topographic Map

In my head the whole thing should have taken 6-8 hours, and this is without running.  Ha!

I learned some valuable lessons on this trip.

  1. A trail on a map in NZ means nothing.  In my head I see a trail and think it is ‘runnable’.  I’m used to being able to cover at least 8K (5 miles) an hour on even ‘tough’ trails.  The Mistake Creek trail was not even thought of as a particularly tough trail and it seemed to take ages!

    Jarod enjoying off track travel

    Jarod enjoying off track travel

  2. No trail on a map in NZ can mean anything.  Sometimes we were able to move down a boulder bed stream at 3K and hour.  Other times we were reduced to crawling through bush at less than 500 meters per hour.
  3. Don’t second guess the locals. Looking at the contour lines around Consolation peak, I was sure it would be a walk in the park getting to the Melita valley.  It wasn’t.  We managed, but there was some seriously steep ground in a few places and I was very very glad to have decades of climbing experience under my belt.

    Jarod enjoying easy ledges on the sidle around Consolation peak

    Jarod enjoying easy ledges on the sidle around Consolation peak

  4. Things are hidden in the bush!  Maybe the topo maps here are often based off of the top of the canopy (because the canopy is so thick).  Whatever the reason, we stumbled across some creek gorges that were 30-50 meters deep and only a few meters wide on our descent of Melita creek–stuff I’d have expected to show up on a topo with 20 meter contour intervals.  Invisible.
  5. It rains a lot up here.  Although our day out was perfect weather, much of the forest was covered with moss up to 30 cm thick.  Sloped tussock drainages were sopping wet even after 48 hours without rain.  There is water to spare in fiordland.

    the moss in Melita Valley

    the moss in Melita Valley

It was a good, long day out that ended up taking about 11 ours to get to the end of the lake.  The river turned out to be too low for pack-rafting, but that turned out to be a good thing, as we were already an hour overdue.

About to put in on Gunn's Lake

About to put in on Gunn’s Lake

Tomorrow John Kenny and I tackle Mission #2, the previously mentioned Big-Hollyday! (see last post)



no-treadmill1If you read the last post you know a bit about my situation–I’m a dirtbag at heart.  This means, ironically, that although I tout the benefits of High Intensity work on the cardio equipment you find in gyms…I’m hesitant to pay for an actual gym membership.

I’ve gotten around this little conundrum for years–first as a graduate student at the University of North Dakota (where membership comes as part of unavoidable student fees) and then thanks to my wife’s generosity.  She had provided me and my boys with free membership to our local YMCA for years when she was on staff teaching weekly Yoga classes.  Even after she stopped teaching regularly about a year ago, she continued to stand in as a ‘sub’ for the occasional class which apparently was good enough to hook us up with the membership.

At least until last month.

Yep, she got an email notice that membership status would no longer be extended to employees or subs without a minimum number of weekly hours–a number she fell below.

I was out in the cold, figuratively speaking.  And after a few weeks, I’d be out in it literally too.  I do live in North Dakota after all.

But I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and so rather than be dismayed decided to look at it as an opportunity to see how well I can translate my UltraMental ideas to a workout schedule that doesn’t include any indoor training.  So far my excommunication from the gym has taught me a few things, and reinforced a few others.

To begin with, I stand by my assertions that you’ll obtain the best results (in terms of approaching your limits on a consistent basis) using indoor equipment and constant and reliable feedback.  I don’t yet have a GPS watch and I imagine use of one would allow me to ‘close the gap’ so to speak on the technological side of the equation (reliable feedback), but the distractions and ‘environmental’ uncertainly present outdoors is a limiting factor that seems insurmountable.  I’ve also noticed that my day by day results are noticeably affected by wind and temperature.  Wind I suspected would be a factor but temperature seems far more important than I’d anticipated.  On my two most recent 1 mile tire drag time trials, my pace was nearly 20 seconds per mile different under identical wind conditions and at similar levels of perceived exertion.  The slower pace, however, resulted on a day where the ambient temperature was more than 20 degrees lower (28 F vs. 50 F).

Beyond the challenges to consistency that will affect how robustly baseline/repeatable workouts can be used as part of a high intensity approach, I have discovered that I actually enjoy being outside.  My workouts are even more flexible now as I don’t have to work around gym hours, schedules or possible equipment shortages.  I can walk right out my front door (even when my wife is gone and my two young boys are home playing legos), and run laps around the block if need be.  I also get to drag the tire on a more regular basis now, something that garners little head shakes and what I can only imagine are stares of admiration from all the neighbors (you know, as they wonder to themselves how I can run so fast while dragging that thing) which is kind of cool perk.

Andy Magness at the high point of the Teal Bay route

I’m no stranger to NZ and look forward to getting back to the birthplace of UltraMental and having some great adventures!

But I do miss the gym to be honest–since my hiatus I have yet to feel quite the same sense of desperate agony that used to be a regular feature of my experience during the five minutes after those red LEDs on the cardio machine console counted down to zero.  This might seem like a perk, but for me it’s really not.  It’s those five minutes that I rely on to tell me I’m working hard enough.  Under ordinary circumastances, though, I don’t think I’d last very long before I had to do the hard mental work to overcome my cheapskate tendencies and pony up that cold hard cash for access to all that technology again.  But as it turns out, the experiment of taking UltraMental beyond the gym will last for a while longer yet, as my exile from the gym will turn into a self-imposed exile from the country.

In three weeks time, my family and I head over to rural New Zealand for a little more than four months.  I get to escape the North Dakota winter and I get a whole new group of neighbors to impress. Awesome.