What about elegance of route? Just exactly, what is “elegance of route?” It's clear that alpinists, skiers, boarders and rock/ice climbers have an idea about “a nice line” but what makes a line good for wilderness travel?
—Roman Dial, Alaskan wilderness racer and adventurer
We started seeing a cultural shift in the things people [are] doing. People are doing things a little bit faster on account of time commitments. It's no longer enough to climb a mountain but how fast you do it, and in what manner . . . rather than just hacking to the summit. As first ascents become ever more elusive, backcountry enthusiasts are finding new ways to challenge themselves.
—Damien Huang, product director for The North Face Company
Central Questions Addressed in This Article
What makes some wilderness adventures elegant, extraordinary or outstanding? What distinguishes a good and enjoyable trip from one that is elegant and extraordinary? What makes one backpacking adventure so powerful and memorable that it stands out from most of the others? What would the wilderness trip of a lifetime look like? What kind of trip would push your wilderness skills, knowledge and equipment to the next level?
Here are some terms that are roughly synonymous with each other: elegant, memorable, powerful, extraordinary, peak experience, first rate, outstanding, grand, ecstatic. How might these phrases apply to wilderness adventures? For example, what is meant by the following: “We did that in grand style.” “That was a epic trip.” “That is an elegant route.” “That was a truly outstanding and memorable adventure.” “That trip is on my life list.” “That was a trip of a lifetime.” In exploring these concepts related to backpacking, I arbitrarily choose two adjectives—extraordinary and elegant—as umbrella terms for all the rest.
These closely related concepts and phrasings are quite subjective and do not allow for any universal answers or precise definitions. But they are still deserving as much analysis and reflection as we can muster. This analysis starts with numerous thumbnail sketches derived from a variety of sources. They should be useful to tease out some possible answers and meanings to the central questions raised in this article.
Elegant and Extraordinary Adventures: Thumbnail Sketches
Consider the following thumbnail sketches of experiences and adventures for which these labels might be appropriate.
High Traverses: Travel is mostly above tree line on ridges and benches and passes between drainages—staying high without losing much elevation. Trips where there are spectacular views and the feeling of wilderness is dominating. The weather has to be good to enjoy the vistas in order to push this type of trip into the realm of the extraordinary. But hunkering down on a high traverse in bad weather without a good bailout route certainly does add an extra dimension. Good examples are probably the Bailey Range and Ptarmigan Traverses in Washington state, the Sierra high routes in California and the Colorado Trail in Colorado.
Desert and Canyon Traverses: Travel through open desert and canyon country. An example might be the last 160 miles of the 800-mile long Hayduke Trail in Utah. A few deep slot canyons thrown in would make the trip extraordinary.
Traversing Watersheds Following a Natural Line: An extraordinary adventure is traversing watersheds following the natural features and contours of the land. It is following a natural line and direction that takes you to the main features (i.e., lakes, peaks, passes, waterfalls) of the watershed without having to backtrack.
Off-Trail Trekking: Trekking for miles and miles off-trail without crossing trails or roads, without seeing other groups or individuals, without awareness of the signs of civilization, avoiding trails even if it makes the trip longer and more difficult. Getting out of the trail mentality.
Mapless Off-Trail Trekking: Hiking off-trail relying primarily on dead-reckoning skills, without the aid of a map or GPS (but still carrying a watch and compass?). In the words of a New Zealander, Stuart Bilby, “[This is] finding your own way in three dimensions—like solving a puzzle with your body.”
North to Alaska: For true adventure, go north to Alaska (or Russia or Canada). Alaska (and other far north wildernesses) is the final frontier for North Americans. Here one can get all the “off-trail trekking,” “traversing watersheds,” “bushwhacking” and “wilderness experiences” one could possibly want.
Crossing Regions: Here is another perspective on extraordinary trips from Stuart Bilby:
Crossing from one region into the other. I love New Zealand transalpine trips. You start on the wild west coast beach, and follow the river to where it comes from, up though the rain forest to the tussock, the rock and the glacier, up the glacier across the snow and down the other side to the dry, shimmering, mile-wide river beds. That's elegant.
Completing a Classic Long Distance Thru-Hike: Out for weeks and months at a time “thru-hiking” a classic, long distance trail (e.g., the PCT, JMT, AT, CDT, NWT, ADT).
Completing An Ultra Long Distance Hike: Being out for months of continuous hiking involving seemingly superhuman effort in all seasons. Examples: Erin and Hig MacKittrick’s Wild Coast trip from Seattle to the Aleutian Chain (385 days and 4000 miles); Andrew Skurka’s Sea-to-Sea transcontinental trip from Quebec to Washington state (7800 miles in 11 months) and his Great Western Loop (6875 miles); doing the 7900 mile Triple Crown (PCT, AT and CDT trails) all in a one-year period.
Completing a Super-Ultralight Backpack: Planning and completing a long hike in the super-ultralight (SUL) or extreme ultralight (EUL) mode. An example might be hiking at least ninety miles in three or four days while packing five pounds or less base pack weight (FSO = from the skin out, not including consumables). The hike would be totally self-contained without any kind of support.
Close-Knit Group Adventure: A demanding trip where a small group of like-minded individuals work well together. The group has similar goals. The individuals complement each other’s skills. They are relatively equal in energy and stamina. All are enjoyable companions and are (or become) close friends. There is a high level of synergy in the group.
Well-Planned and Well-Executed: A demanding trip where everything comes together. It is well-planned from the beginning and the execution comes off smoothly without major hitches. The chosen route avoids major obstacles, the weather is great, the temperatures moderate, the scenery spectacular, the gear selection was right on, prior physical conditioning was sufficient, and so on.
Simplicity and Spontaneity: The trip is elegant in its simplicity and spontaneity. The logistics are easy. The right people are all available. There are no hassles about the route, the menus, the party gear, etc. Decisions are made quickly and spontaneously without much discussion.
Oneness and Interconnectedness: The sometimes overwhelming (spiritual?) experience of feeling connected with all things, of experiencing a strong sense of the oneness and interconnectedness of all things, of having strong feelings of reverence for life. Two quotes attempt to express this powerful experience.
. . . the separate “I” no longer feels “How lonely it is”; instead the person directly experiences a sense of oneness . . . and this is why these events are often felt as numinous, religious or spiritual experiences . . . we may glimpse into the reality that there is indeed a link between us all, between us and all living things, between us and the universe.
—Jean Shimoda Bolen, M.D., The Tao of Psychology
D. H. Lawrence, British novelist, goes even further:
We must get back into relationship, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. For the truth is we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal, sources which flow eternally in the universe. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.
Winter Trip in Harsh Environment: An extraordinary adventure is a trip of a week or more enduring cold winter temperatures with unpredictable weather and winds. Travel is through heavy snow cover (e.g., a ski tour or high altitude mountain climb). Specialized gear (e.g., snowshoes, crampons, ice axe, snow shovel or saw, trail wands, vapor barrier clothing) is usually involved.
Historically Significant Trails: An example of elegance with a historical flavor is the following: doing historical research and then following mostly abandoned trails used by native peoples, explorers and settlers. One example might be the Lewis and Clark Trail; another the Oregon Trail. Yet another might be tracing the various routes of Native Americans when they traveled from one side of a mountain range to the other side.
Following Animal Trails: Finding and following animal trails through an extensive wilderness. In the words of Roman Dial,
In Alaska we have wild landscapes and great animals (moose, caribou, bear, sheep) who cut natural trails. It is a joy to learn where to find these trails and to learn how to tune in and follow them. Mixing that with rivers and glaciers makes me feel like a performance artist whose medium is wild Earth.
Inspiration for a Future Trip: “When you are lying under a rock, staring at the stars - and you say ‘Ya know mate, one day we should . . . ’ the idea is nearly always elegant.” (Stuart Bilby)
Thanks to contributors (Bilby, Jordan, Dial) on the BackpackingLight @yahoogroups.com website for both the initial inspiration and for some insightful contributions quoted in this section. The email message thread, from November 2004, was titled “Elegance.”
Elegance Is More Than the Unique and Spectacular
In developing this article, I wanted so much to include the unique and spectacular. I wanted to describe some of my experiences that were high on the scale of emotional impact. After much struggle and reflection, I concluded that these types of things would take this article off on a tangent. They did not seem appropriate to the essence of this topic. To illustrate, here are a number of personal examples of unique and spectacular experiences I have had over the years while traveling in the wilderness:
I share these personal examples mainly to contrast them with the elegant and extraordinary adventures sketched at the beginning. No matter how spectacular, unique and rare the experience, it is not the same as being elegant! The same could be said of spectacular sunrises and sunsets or meeting unique individuals on the trail or having some sort of spiritual experience.
These types of rare events are different from elegant adventures. For one thing, singular events are not the same as what is experienced over the course of multiday trips. For another, the unique events described in this section were not planned but just happened. There are probably other differences that exclude them from the elegant and the extraordinary.
One could argue that this is, in fact, all a matter of degree with much gray area between “unique” and “extraordinary.” The same claim could be made about the distinction between a good and enjoyable trip and one that is elegant and extraordinary. My understanding of an “extraordinary” trip is that it is different inkind, not just in degree. Defining “elegant” in this way is somewhat arbitrary, but it is necessary to give this topic its due.
Are Good (Satisfying, Fun) Trips Inferior in Any Way?
By definition, most backcountry trips do not come close to the extraordinary and elegant. But does this mean they are inferior or not worthy in some way?
There is nothing wrong with a good (fun, satisfying) trip into the backcountry. Most of my trips fit into this category. All of my trips that follow the same trail in and out of an area are of this nature. There is no right or wrong here, no inferior or superior—only different kinds trips and adventures, differing both in degree and in kind. Even the lowest quality trip doesn’t equate with being a bad trip with no redeeming qualities. In the same vein on a slightly related subject, there are more and less experienced backpackers, but no place for the value judgment of inferior or superior based on experience.
We all should be so fortunate as to experience a trip or two so high in quality that it moved into the category of being elegant and extraordinary.
Reader Participation: Examples of Elegant Adventures
First, think of trips you have taken that might be described as elegant, or extraordinary. Consider trips you would like to repeat, if possible. Consider trips you have been dreaming and planning about for some time. Consider the nature of your trip of a lifetime. Second, write down the primary characteristics of these trips. Third, set a date for your next extravagant and extraordinary adventure. Designate some planning milestones.
Author’s Experience of Elegance
My most memorable experiences in the “elegant” category have come on high traverses in Washington state: the Bailey Range and Mt. Olympus traverses in the Olympics, the circumnavigations of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams in the Southern Cascades, the Ptarmigan and Picket Traverses in the North Cascades. For the most part, these traverses have been off trail and over virgin terrain. The weather was generally great, the scenery spectacular and the feeling of wilderness dominating.
Another experience bordering on the elegant is the intense relationships developed in a small, informal hiking and climbing group known simply as “Amazing Grace.” There were four of us. The group was active in the 1970s, a free and easy time, a time of cultural upheaval. Amazing Grace moved with the times. Two marriages, two divorces, the death of a spouse and many great wilderness trips together helped cement our bond. Our bonds from the past still bring us together for special occasions.
My trip of a lifetime would be to get out of the trail mentality and spend days traversing a wilderness area free of roads and trails. I would hope that this trip format would allow me to experience a real sense of oneness and interconnectedness with nature, as expressed in one of the thumbnail sketches at the beginning of this article. For this more spiritual level of experience, the trip would likely have to be done solo. I have done a lot of solo hiking and off-trail travel, but not to the extent that I experienced this profound meshing and connecting with nature.
Final Thoughts About Elegance of Style
I hope you have answered the central questions addressed in this article to your satisfaction. In the process, I would also hope you have expanded your sense of what’s possible and have some ideas for future adventures that will have a touch of elegance. If you haven’t yet experienced a wilderness trip that had a touch of elegance, by your own definition, now is the time to plan one. At the least, this article might enhance your day and night dreams of elegant and extraordinary wilderness adventures.