Wild: Does the digital age spell death for adventure—or open up new horizons?

words :: Feet Banks 

This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List

Introducing our Curated COVID-19 Isolation reading list. Editors from each of our publications have gone through and compiled a list of pieces from past issues of Mountain Life for you to enjoy, and we’re excited to share them with you. Sit back and relax, because we might be in this for the long haul. But most importantly, let’s not forget to do this together.

“I don’t like to look at a map too much before a big trip, it takes the adventure out of it.”

That legendary Canadian ski-mountaineer Eric Pehota offers these words makes them valuable enough. That he utters them on B.C.’s Chilcotin River as we attempt to pilot his 6-metre jet boat up Class IV whitewater on a multi-day journey linking stretches of river no jet boat has ever travelled, makes them that much more profound. As Pehota knifes the boat past the first standing wave I realize I have no idea what lies around the next bend. And it feels awesome.

It’s a small world, so the saying goes. But in an age of Google Earth, satellite trackers, and online forums listing GPS coordinates for every trailhead, access road and renegade backcountry cabin known, has that world become too small? In our efforts to climb higher, go faster, and push deeper into the wild than ever before, are today’s explorers missing the point that real adventure exists almost solely in the realm of the unknown?

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“Human instinct is to succeed,” says Trevor Hunt, a ski mountaineer based in Squamish, B.C. “We all like to say the journey is more important than the goal, but most of us hedge our bets by finding out as much as we can to achieve it. That doesn’t make you any less of an adventurer.”

And Hunt would know. Over the past decade or so he’s quietly climbed and skied—often solo—some of the planet’s steepest descents. From B.C. to Alaska, Georgia, Pakistan, Peru and beyond, Hunt has generally left the technology at home. But it’s growing on him.

“Adventure comes from reacting to adversity. It happens when you don’t know exactly where you’re going—which is pretty easy to achieve if you unplug.”

“We just did a trip to Mount Logan,” he explains. “It was crazy. Our ascent of the mountain was totally unplanned and we followed a vague route sketched in my notebook like a pirate’s treasure map. But we used iPhone photos and a satellite phone to strategize and facilitate the madness. Friends as far away as Austria helped get us to the top.”

Hunt also believes we often use technology as a scapegoat for human failures. “When you go to the beach and spend the whole time on your phone it’s not the phone’s fault,” he says. “Technology doesn’t replace a sound mind and real experience. I like to think people get into the level of adventure they can handle—tech or no tech.”

In a time-starved society, however, “tech” offers a faster route to that personal level of adventure. Where classic explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Alexander MacKenzie spent years charting new terrain far from civilization, all it takes these days is an all-wheel-drive station wagon and an Internet connection.

“It’s a time-restraint thing for sure,” says Pemberton, B.C., snowboarder Joe Lax, an early adopter of scoping new zones online instead of burning snowmobile gas and time exploring potential dead-end valleys. “I can’t just spend a week going up every drainage to see where it leads. There are a lot of new resources out there but there’s a lot of Earth too. We keep going deeper but these tools help us to be more precise. The quality of adventure is still there.”

I can see my house from….literally anywhere, these days! illustration: Benoît Laverdière

Another Pemberton resident, ski-mountaineer J.D. Hare, understands the allure of technology for big, potentially dangerous backcountry firsts. “You have to build it and discover it and research it,” he says, “You become the architect for the mission.” As a pro alpinist, Hare used online resources to find steep, never-before-skied lines but thinks the everyman may be getting the wrong message. “These tools help facilitate the highest-level missions, but can take the fun out of the regular experiences. Adventure comes from reacting to adversity. It happens when you don’t know exactly where you’re going—which is pretty easy to achieve if you unplug.”

And while technology like GPS communicators, avalanche airbags, and even cell phones undoubtedly make backcountry missions safer, true adventurers know nothing is foolproof.

“You can’t rely on it,” Lax says. “You can go out with all the beta but you’re still in the wilderness and there are no guarantees. Ultimately you have to ground-truth it, and you can always run into a shitshow.”

Hunt agrees. “As soon as your plan goes to shit, you’re guaranteed an adventure,” he says. “Maybe in a modern sense, those are the only true adventures left.”

And what does Eric Pehota think? He’s seen Google Earth once (“It’s like a big map”) but doesn’t use it. “It does take something away,” he says. “I always tell my wife I wish I’d been born a hundred years ago. Just about every day would have been a new adventure or a ‘first.’ But one thing that’s constant in life is change—if it’s there, people will use it. Why not? It’s foolish not to.”

Of course, foolishness and adventure often go hand in hand. Perhaps the best summation is found, fittingly, on the Internet, under Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics: “Once a can of worms is opened, a larger can will be required to contain all the worms.”

The question is: How large of a can are you willing to cram into your backpack? — ML