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?