The Process

This is my ski-movie drinking game. Drink anytime:

  • There’s a skier-induced avalanche
  • Someone uses the words “progression” or “extreme” or “inspiration to the sport”
  • You see a laid-out backflip
  • There’s a time lapse of the stars
  • People have trouble translating in a foreign country
  • Someone yard sales
  • There’s a montage of travel scenes
  • Someone breaks a tree branch in the air

Just a few nights ago, a friend and I watched a movie about skiing around the world. This was supposed to be a game-changing film, and I’ll give them credit–it was impressive. The logistics alone would stop a regular guy in his tracks–they went to Alaska, Russia, Canada, Wyoming, and Japan all in the span of two or three seasons. Along the way they hoofed hundreds of pounds of camera equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the tops of mountains, into trees, and below helicopters to get the kind of hero shots that made even my desensitized jaw drop in awe: slow-motion corked 720s off 80-plus-foot jumps; blurry straight-shots of pencil-thin couloirs; desperate launches onto precarious slopes above yawning abysses. They skied below erupting volcanoes and over shattered glaciers and high-fived each other at the end. “This is why we do this,” they said after each harrowing descent. “This is the passion bro.”

Unfortunately for me and my buddy (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), they also induced a lot of avalanches, talked about people progressing the sport, broke tree branches in mid-air, and laid out some seriously casual backflips. They had trouble communicating in foreign places and watched those brilliant stars zip through the sky at light speed. If I hadn’t brought an extra six pack (of, um, root beer…) we might not have made it through the whole movie. By the end we were on the floor yelling advice at the athletes as they ripped down the Alaskan peaks, and I stayed the night.

I have a tendency to overthink things, and by that I mean I tend to think about the things I do so much that they start to seem sort of stupid. Running a long way doesn’t seem to have much of a point if the point you’re looking for is something tangible. Races are a nice way to quantify running, but they are few and far between. So I need another reason to do it, and the outdoor world is quick to provide reasons to get outside. A simple perusal of advertisements shows the soulful bounty of being in, near, and among such things as alpenglow, campfires in the wilderness, lunchtime in a canyon, reading by an alpine lake, and/or looking upward while climbing a peak. There is more, it’s endless, and you know what I’m talking about. In the culture of outdoor sports, we all believe there is an inherent value in simple outdoor experience that is not simply intangible by coincidence–it is valuable precisely because it is intangible. It’s a reaction to a general sense of overmaterialism in western culture. This is what I mean when I say I overthink things.

I believe that valuing intangible experience in this way is right and good. I also believe that a lot of us take it too far by substituting an idea of “experiences” for clothes or cars or any of the other normal materialistic things. We collect experiences like money, using each experience, each photo, each video to attach to our lives a quantifiable value. That defeats the purpose of doing something intangible simply for the sake of its intangibility, but I think we can be forgiven. The concept of purity is unrealistic and we could be doing a lot worse than recording ourselves.

Characteristically, I overthought about that ski movie. I thought about how much money they must have spent to travel so far and do so much. I thought about how much of an environmental impact they had, both directly in traveling like that and indirectly by inspiring other people to follow in their footsteps. They went all out, both while skiing and while promoting themselves, and it was hard not to see a lot of cognates with my own approach to the mountains. I am no less a mountain athlete than those guys, and I travel nearly as much. I’ve been to Europe at least six times, Japan twice, Australia, South Korea, China, and all over the American west. I’m currently planning to race in Europe next year and just last month I flew down to South America. In fact, I went to South America in order to make a running film, which was ridiculous from an environmental standpoint but awesome from an adventure standpoint. And there’s my dilemma right there: two of the most important aspects of my life–adventures and the environment–seem irreconcilable. Those two opposing factors often pull me in different directions.

As a mountain athlete, I feel I have as much of a responsibility to take care of the mountains as I do to take care of the athlete (AKA me). I’m great at the latter–years of training, racing, and climbing have given me the physical ability to pull off some impressive feats of athleticism and occasionally to do something outstanding. But despite all my talk about environmentalism, despite loving the mountains so much they make my heart ache, despite a million daily reasons to be grateful for the natural world, I nearly always prioritize the athlete to the detriment of the mountain. I exclaim at the wonders of the wilderness while clothed in oil. And that’s normal. We all do that. But I wonder if there’s not a way to do more for the mountains along the way.

Right now we have too many destinations and not enough travel; I think it’s time to reverse the ratio. Because if we’re looking for experiences, we will get a lot more value from the journey than from the destination. It’s a trope that any Hollywood movie could tell you, but we need to start prioritizing the middle more than the end. Races, social media, films–all these things are fun, but they depict a world that is entirely predicated on euphoria. You can’t feel like that all the time and it’s harmful to the mountains to try. The ski film I saw was a good example of this: they focused 99% of the footage on truly epic shots of summits, huge carving turns, and slow-motion tricks. They showed the in-between times–the hikes up, the waiting around for weather, the grocery shopping, etc.–only briefly, basically to prove that they had happened. And while this makes sense, it gives a skewed perception of what mountain sports are really about, and they cause the goals of people in mountain sports to shift more toward fulfillment of the dream and away from the process of achieving it. This is how we become materialistic about recording ourselves: if all you want from the mountains is to fulfill that dream then you’ll go to any lengths to get to the right spot at the right time to capture a photo you can later use to impress people. By ignoring the process in this way, we devalue the environment.

The mountains are a wonderful arena to express ourselves as athletes. That’s why it’s time to start prioritizing the mountains over the athlete: so that more athletes can experience the mountains. But it’s more than that; this needs to be a give-and-take relationship. But I see the current trend of outdoor sports far too focused on taking without giving back enough. If the mountain landscapes we feed upon for our relaxation, self-expression, and personal challenges are degraded, then everyone loses. Giving back to the mountains is giving back to everyone.

So keep using social media and watching outdoor films–these are fun ways to engage with our sport and its people. But don’t take them too seriously and don’t try to copy them too much. The people in the films are just like you except with more advertising money behind them. Remember that you can usually get just as much adventure close to home as you could in Chamonix or Japan or the Andes. And if you really want to go to those places, do yourself a favor and travel there as slowly as possible. That’s the real recipe for adventure. To actually travel instead of just going somewhere new. That seems to get forgotten a lot.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What kind of relationship do you have with the places you recreate? Do you know the kinds of plants and animals that occupy those spaces? Do know how the places change with changes in season, weather, the number of other people recreating in them, and more?
  • How equal is your motivation to enjoy and experience natural places and to do no harm to them as you recreate?
  • How do you think our trail running community can better advocate for the protection of our natural world in ways that will allow outdoor lovers of the future to enjoy it as we are?

There are 14 comments

  1. Andy M

    Growing up in the 60s and 70s, with the burgeoning of new highways, my dad (a geologist and outdoor lover extraordinaire) always preferred the back roads to see more, experience more, to “actually travel instead of just going.” It has always stuck with me.

    Many races have a service requirement for entry, usually met thru volunteering at races. But more could require only service to the environment (e.g., trail work) as the only option. It’s a big part of the “process” and would serve both the MUT community and the mountains well.

  2. sleeper

    We’re different and we’re the same.

    We’re different. I kind of pride myself on not thinking too much about things. And so when I see someone (you) distill these big complex ideas into a concise story that makes a point, I’m impressed. But I don’t envy all the thought (which I interpret as stress, but maybe you enjoy?) that went into doing it.

    We’re the same. I just like to get out and do things. To me, this is another way to go about not thinking too much. I enjoy the doing and not so much the posting of the pictures afterwards. And I love the point about travel and not destination grabbing.

    Thank you for continuing to think and share.

  3. Molly

    WOW! This really spoke to me. You pinpointed exactly what I have been feeling lately… Every time I get an opportunity to travel I feel like I have to take it (and at last count, I flew internationally more than 10 times in 2016). It’s almost like I have FOMO of the world. But I have the same environmental concerns you mention, and I’m also not sure that travelling further makes any of my experiences more valuable. It’s not so much where you are as how you spend the time where you are!

    Here’s to finding adventure closer to home in 2017!

  4. Peter

    Great stuff Dakota! Honest, intelligent and sincere! You really hit a nerve with me when talking about getting to ‘there’, getting to the epic adventure, not seeing the process as part of the goal.
    Your words; “To actually travel instead of just going somewhere new made me think about an often cited H.C. Andersen (A fairytale writer) quote: “to travel is to live”. You gave me a new perspective on this quote, I always understood it as “going places is to live”, while your words made me think that he meant that our journey is what is the content of life. The destination is just a part of traveling. Thank you for overthinking and sharing your spiral with us.

  5. Nick

    Great read, thanks Dakota.

    While it’s just a small gesture, I try to make a point of picking up a piece of “stray” litter whenever I’m out running or walking. Just a small and simple way to try and counter the damage I do to the trail by being on it. I do this even when I’m running in a race – in fact even more so as I then feel a responsibility to help protect the perception of the event by non-runners, which obviously isn’t helped by energy gel packets being left on the trail.

  6. Kelly Wilson

    I volunteer for Adventure Scientists. It’s an organization that collects data to help solve environmental challanges based in Bozeman, MT. I collect water samples for a microplastics study that’s in its second year from the Gallatin water shed. My site is in Yellowstone NP. Volunteers are chosen based on their outdoor skills and are able to gather data from hard to reach places around the world. I don’t have to use my ultra running skills to gather my samples. My furthest destination is 5k from the tributary confluence but my fitness is necessary for breaking trail on snowshoes in December and March. This is my way of giving back to the environment and thinking twice before buying another fleece. Thanks Dakota, good post.

  7. Sebastian Boenisch

    nice read, thanks for the inspiration… It reminded me a lot of Douglas Tompkins and his late years in South America.There are to much people on this earth for us not to take care of the unique landscapes that each of us adores.
    And I think it is a good sign that we still feel bad about entering the unspoiled state of a swamp, the mountains or the perfect beach on a hiking trip in South East Asia cause that shows we understand that our live style most times just crisscross and often destroys an otherwise perfect system. But…maybe the BigBudgetMovies about trail running, hiking or skiing are good for something – to show the beauty of our world and to get people started and fall in love with being out the door and into the wild. Like Kris said in “Mile for Mile”–“We want for people to get out and fall in love because you will not protect something unless you love it”

  8. Rick Simonson

    Thoughtful piece. The distinction between “destinations and travel” is perhaps not either/or, but a continuum. In looking to travel to provide the “value of the journey and non-materialistic experiences” where do you see annual events that we all came back to year after year, regardless of how far we travel to get there?
    Good example is the Telluride Mountain Run you have put on for a number of years. I come each year for the experience even though I have worked, visited or lived part time in the Telluride area for over 30 years.
    BTW, is the 2017 TMC ON?

  9. Bobby O

    I don’t totally agree with Carlin on this, or a lot of his philosophies. But in the echo chamber of the internet we tend to fall into from time to time, it’s nice to hear what the Devil’s Advocate has to say.

    This is from one of George Carlin’s later standup specials in his career. I don’t think its wrong to be concerned. But if you overthink that concern, is it from an abstract point of view of stewardship, or is it a fear that we might in the future be “personally inconvenienced.”

    To be frank, I’m a tree hugger just like any other red-blooded trail runner. But I do think there are decades of wisdom in what George Carlin has to say in this quote.

    “We’re so self-important. Everybody’s going to save something now. “Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails.” And the greatest arrogance of all: save the planet. Save the planet, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. I’m tired of this shit. I’m tired of f-ing Earth Day. I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is that there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet. Not in the abstract they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that some day in the future they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me.

    The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

    We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

    The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?”

    Plastic… asshole.” – George Carlin

  10. shaun h

    Dakota, you are definitely a solid writer. You effectively put your words down in cohesive order to convey the message you’re trying to get across, while simultaneously keeping things interesting. That being said, this is the second time I have read one of your articles (the other regarding the organizing of your Telluride Mountain Run ), where your very limited perspectives have really frustrated me. Maybe that’s what you’re going for, but whether you wanted an echo chamber or a confrontation I’d like to push back a little bit.

    Much like Bobby O, I’m as much of “a tree mugger just like any other red-blooded trail runner”. I pick up trash, I avoid muddy trail, I do my best to practice environmental stewardship while I’m out enjoying my place of worship and that helps me realize how small I am in the world. Kantian ethics test for immorality by asking the question “if everyone acted as I am acting, would it be ok?” It feels like you try to live by this code when you think about your world travels and when you judge if you’re living your life as a good steward of your environment. And to be fair, if 7 billion people acted as you act the world would not be in very good shape; however, sometimes you need to be pragmatic instead of deontological.

    You, Dakota Jones, and those ski movie makers inspire more people to take action to protect this planet through your destructive behaviors than you can ever do by writing a condescending, lecturing essay from your perch of extreme privilege. It’s as if you are guzzling water as quickly as you can from a well and once you’re no longer feeling thirsty you are warning the others around you that they should reconsider drinking from the well because one day it may run dry. That well is the well of knowledge and life, the world is big and we are small, the more we know about it the more we can share it and learn to protect it and live well.

    Your trips around the world are less than a rounding error in the grand scheme of environmental impact, but when you share its beauty, that’s when you’re doing the good work. Please carry on to inspire those of us who can’t do it for a living!

  11. ES

    “As a mountain athlete, I feel I have as much of a responsibility to take care of the mountains as I do to take care of the athlete (AKA me). I’m great at the latter–years of training, racing, and climbing have given me the physical ability to pull off some impressive feats of athleticism and occasionally to do something outstanding. But despite all my talk about environmentalism, despite loving the mountains so much they make my heart ache, despite a million daily reasons to be grateful for the natural world, I nearly always prioritize the athlete to the detriment of the mountain.”

    Dude. Admit it. You thoroughly enjoy the lifestyle and the brief time spent under the sun as a competitive endurance athlete. Own it. It is a privilege and an honor to do what you do. If your convictions weigh so heavily on your conscience, what is the impetus for continuing in the trajectory that you’re moving along as a paid endurance athlete? Stop with the personal whipping post entries bemoaning the internal conflict you have playing around the world with a camera behind you and a multinational sports conglomerate footing the bill for you to continue selling their brands ethos.

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