Coming of age

Note: This essay originally appeared in Paleo magazine

The mountains are calling and I must go.

John Muir

Back in my college days I was, like many of my peers, a confused and restless animal. Books and civilized rituals weren’t feeding my body or my spirit, so I began to seek out nature. At the time, the enterprise sounded like a great idea, but unfortunately, I didn’t really have the slightest idea of what I was getting into. Maybe I thought I would be like Jack London or John Muir, sweaty and drunk on the primal experience, brimming with ecstasy and nature’s prose.

All that changed when I discovered the challenges and lure of the alpine world. After a brief apprenticeship in Yosemite Valley, I agreed to join a somewhat  impulsive attempt on the Northeast Buttress of Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies. In the world of mountaineering, Howse is no K2, but it's plenty substantial. It’s large and raw, with more than its share of verticality, loose rock and hanging ice fields; an authentic mountain by any standard.

To make a long story short, the climb had all the nakedness I had been wondering about, only it was many orders of magnitude more intense than I had imagined. There was cold, fatigue and hunger, which was to be expected, but more important, it had gobs and gobs of fear and uncertainty. In fact, it was a four day near-death experience.

From the time we left the glacier, every single moment was saturated with danger. Our  skills were barely adequate; at no time did we believe we were safe. The rock was often wet, the protection was poor, the belay anchors sometimes non-existent. The bivvy sites were exposed, sloping platforms that did their best to kick us off all night, every night. The rain came and went and our sleeping bags were soaked; sleep came only between fits of tumultuous shivering. The experience was vivid, intense and unforgettable.

As I shivered at an belay stance on the third day, I began to understand what it means to be an animal in a wild environment: 24 hour exposure and 24 hour vulnerability. Oh, now I get it. This is nature! This is Paleo! This is what life must have been like for our ancestors. Bivouac out every night, regardless of conditions. If it rains, you manage; if there’s no water, you keep going; if you’re injured you persevere. All with uncertainty as your constant companion.

To be sure, the mountains and grasslands are not always hostile. Just as the alpine world has its perfect summer days when the meadows burst with glorious wildflowers, so too would our ancestral grassland have had its body-friendly moments. Even with the near-constant threat of predators and periodic uncertainty about food and water, the mosaic habitats of Africa would have had their nurturing side, with idyllic days of comfortable camps and spectacular views. But such conditions are fragile, precious and rare.

In any case, I came to realize that I had been lulled into a kind of sleep over the years; duped by domesticity, coddled by agriculture and fossil fuels. No wonder I was confused. Life in our modern era is, in one sense at least, a cakewalk. Safety, comfort and security are not only possible, many of us take them as a birthright. Doesn’t every creature have a warm place to sleep at night and a hot meal on demand?

After three days of nearly continuous climbing, we got to the top of Howse Peak, but we did not conquer it in any sense. The descent took forever and the hike out was 12 miles of rain-soaked brush, all by headlamp. We forded a river at dawn to reach the highway–desperate, starving and wasted.

Afterwards, I sought refuge in heated restaurants and soft beds, at least for awhile. I also came to the conclusion that my knowledge of nature needed serious revision. I realized that most moderns have little or no idea of what the wild animal experience, or the Paleo experience for that matter, is like. In fact, we understand the living world in a totally distorted and insulated way, which is to say, we scarcely understand it at all.

The mountain and the grassland highlight our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses and our limitations. As my partner and I climbed that mountain, we saw huge slabs of ice  break off on both sides of the ridge, sweeping away everything in their path. It was all so clear; perched on that ridge, we had no more significance than any rock pile or snow slab. In the mountains, all are equal before gravity. On the grassland, all are equal before weather, darkness, hunger and predation. We are vulnerable animals in an often hostile world.

So perhaps it’s time for the Paleo movement to get back to fundamentals. It’s exposure, not biochemistry, that defines us.