Jon Turk earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1971 and was nominated by National Geographic as one of the Top Ten Adventurers of the Year in 2012. Between these bookends, Jon co-authored the first college level environmental science textbook in North America, followed by 26 additional texts in environmental, physical, and earth sciences.
At the same time, he has kayaked around Cape Horn and across the North Pacific from Japan to Alaska, mountain biked across the Gobi in Mongolia, and made numerous first ski descents and first rock climbing ascents around the globe. Jon has published four books about these adventures: Cold Oceans (HarperCollins), In the Wake of the Jomon (McGraw Hill), The Raven’s Gift (St Martin’s Press) and Crocodiles and Ice (Oolichan Press). During extended travel in northeast Siberia, Jon’s worldview was altered by Moolynaut, a Siberian shaman, and his later books reflect these spiritual journeys.
Hey Jon, welcome to Multiplicity. You’re a repeat offender here at Mountain Life, and we’ve enjoyed many of your well crafted stories and adventures over the years. Can you clue us into your presentation for this years event?
It is titled something like, “The Cosmic Luck-O-Meter App. With total appreciation that I am talking to the most avalanche-aware audience in the world, I am giving a talk about avalanche awareness. But not exactly, because avalanche awareness is just a subset of awareness, or maybe just love of nature in general, because why would you be out there in avalanche terrain if you didn’t truly love nature? And holistically, no talk, for any audience, has any value if we take ourselves too seriously. Something like that.
Where can we download this app?
The app will be available, free of charge, immediately after the event, for anyone with 6 G internet capabilities.
Have you ever been caught in a slide, or been involved in a rescue?
Yes, actually, this talk centers around a slide that caught me in December of this season. But what haunts me, and will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life, was the slide in 2005 where my wife and a dear friend were buried and killed. I saw the danger clearly enough to save myself, but not with sufficient social conviction to save Chris and Will. We have to talk about that.
Which would you say has influenced your opinions and views on avalanche awareness more, standout avalanche events and pivotal decision making moments with partners, or a mass of unidentifiable events spanning your entire backcountry career?
It’s a mass of identifiable events spanning not only my entire backcountry skiing career, but my broader career in many different gravity sports. Anyone who has been in this game for a long time, has lost dear friends. Some of those people were much more skilled and knowledgeable than I will ever be. So, you know, the cosmic questions. Why did that falling refrigerator sized boulder take an odd bounce and miss me on that climb in the Bugaboos; or why did that polar bear rip a hole in my tent and then decide not to eat me? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but it is sometimes a very fine line between a big WHEW! HOLY SHIT! and being dead. We need to look at that fine line.
So many of your articles and books are full of deep ponderings and yet possess a flare of not taking things too seriously. Do you feel in this age of instant media consumption, a slower more thoughtful meditation on our activities is craved by readers?
I feel that it is essential to be both slow and thoughtful and not take things too seriously, all at the same time. Storytelling evolved, deep in our Stone Age past, as a way of engaging the people in our tribe emotionally and viscerally. And then, once you have everyone’s attention, we share our experiences and knowledge, as a tool for survival.
Have you actively tried to cultivate this style of yours or has it slowly evolved over time?
I grew up in suburban Connecticut, went to a fancy prep school with George W. Bush, graduated from a prestigious University with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. I had absolutely no idea where I was headed. But…During a two year expedition to kayak from Japan to Alaska, I met an old Koryak shaman and then spend a considerable amount of time in that Siberian village over the next five years. The Koryak people, the Shaman and the Hunter, and ultimately the Tundra itself taught me to take life seriously and lightly at the same time.
You’ve said that “avalanche awareness is just a subset of awareness, or maybe just love of nature in general, because why would you be out there in avalanche terrain if you didn’t truly love nature?” The assumption that humans only expose themselves to danger because of a motivation of love seems to avoid the many habits, such as drinking and other reckless behavior, that in some instances stem from an attempt at covering up pain, not a love of the vice itself. Have you ever looked at these risky outdoor activities as similar forms of “self medication” or do you see it ultimately as an act of love, regardless of internal storms?
Please, please, don’t ever conflate skiing avalanche terrain with being a drunk. One opens awareness, flow, concentration, while the other closes the mind and spirit. It’s been said many times, but since you ask, I’ll say it again. When you are in avalanche terrain, or high on a rock wall, or running a technical rapid, you open the Power of Now. If you can’t find joy in the moment, You’re dead. This is not a metaphor. I’m not making this up.
When pondering these deeper meanings behind motivations, actions, purpose, what settings do you find you’re doing most of your thinking and conclusion drawing? While on your adventures, while writing, conversations with others, other moments?
Yes. All of the above.
Are there any philosophers or people you feel have had an impact on your worldview on what nature fundamentally is, what it means to spend time there and the ability, whether it exists or not, that humans can connect with what’s there?
Oh boy. There are so many excellent, wise philosophers and writers out there. But if I had to narrow it down to a few, it would be Moolynaut, the Koryak shaman and Oleg the hunter. It’s not that they were necessarily any wiser than the great philosophers I have read, it’s that their teaching was so tactile. I wandered with Moolynaut on a hallucinogenic passage toward the Other World, and sat out real life tundra blizzards in a tattered wall tent with Oleg. These experiences have been so visceral that they will always remain fresh.
Can you tell us a bit about your springs and summers in Montana? Where do you and Nina live and is the seasonal migration between there and Fernie as wonderful as it sounds?
We actually live in three places. In the spring and part of the summer, we live on the road, wandering around in the desert, mainly riding our mountain bikes. In summer, we live in the great forest of Western Montana, in a small modest house, sort of remote, but sort of connected, with a few wonderful neighbors. In winter, we live in Fernie and ski a lot. It definitely is a rich life. I stumbled across an early version of the Cosmic-Luck-O-Meter app early in life and it’s been a wild ride.
We really look forward to having you at Multiplicity this year! Enjoy the snow until then and we’ll see you this spring.
Thanks, I’m looking forward to it as well.
Imagine sitting around a campfire telling stories, then take that experience and multiply it. That’s MULTIPLICITY 2019. The annual event, presented by Mountain Life Media, captures human beings’ rich tradition of storytelling, then elevates it, adding in visual elements of photography, slideshows and video. The result is best compared to a TEDTalk® on adrenalin, with stories brought to you by explorers, athletes, outdoor thought-leaders, and passionate personalities from the mountain world.
Hosted by Mountain Life editor and emcee extraordinaire Feet Banks, MULTIPLICITY is a must-see celebration of true-mountain and adventure culture, and one hell of a good ride. Plus, the event is a special flagship fundraiser for the Spearhead Huts Project.
This event premiered in 2013 and has been a sell-out success each year since – don’t miss out. Grab your tickets today.