Wednesday, September 7, 2011

From a Trail Called Life, a column

As run in the Redoubt Reporter. Enjoy:

By Dante Petri, for the Redoubt Reporter
Photo courtesy of Dante Petri. The Lost Lake Trail winds underneath a snowy Mount Ascension in October 2009. With views like this, who could resist exploring?
A few weeks ago I watched the recently released movie “127 Hours.”
It’s rare that I see anything on the big screen so, of course, I waited for this one to arrive on the shelves of the rental place. But seeing something that is even semirelevant to an outdoors lifestyle is, sorry for the pun, always a breath of fresh air.
The based-on-a-true-story plot follows a then 28-year-old Salt Lake City resident, Aron Ralston, on an epic weekend adventure back in 2003 in near Utah’s Canyonland National Park, and the near-fatal twist it took when a boulder slipped while he navigated a narrow canyon and pinned his right arm.
A far as the movie goes, it’s, as expected, about a guy who goes out to play in the wilderness, gets pinned by a rock, is stuck for a long time and eventually has to cut his own appendage off with a dull pocket knife to free himself.
As one could imagine, the beginning and end are good, but it drags a bit in the middle. Go figure.
I guess what I enjoyed more about this movie was the split it draws between viewers.
On the one side, there’s people who I might categorize as similar to myself — outdoorsy, adventurous, pent-up and caged-in by urban life.
I could certainly relate to Ralston’s frantic late Friday night packing, the drive out of the bright lights of the city and into the dark emptiness of the outside, tunes blaring through the car speakers, juices pumping in anticipation of an adventure-filled weekend.
I’m sure I’ve sensed that same limitless sensation he sought of an epic day, riding for miles, bagging peaks, skiing dream lines in snow conditions that should be illegal. Nothing could go wrong, life is bliss.
The Hollywood producers got me there. But they got “the other” crowd, too. That’s the crowd that watched the movie and went, “That guy is crazy!”
Maybe they said that when they saw him head off to sleep in the back of his pickup in the cold desert night, or maybe it was when he crashed his bike while not wearing a helmet. Their perceptions of his brash and foolhardy behavior were likely reinforced by his Mountain Dew-commercial style of mountain biking. And to ensure viewers that it was not just Ralston who was the crazy one, the producers threw in two clueless girls Ralston happened across who were lost in a canyon and needed rescuing by Ralston. Said crazy hiker girls even invited him to a party later that featured a giant inflated Scooby Doo.
Those crazy kids.
It all helps to affirm that the people running around in this wilderness are a bunch of dumb bimbos and gnarly soda-pop commercial stars, none of whom seem to be capable of good decision-making.
And look at what Ralston’s craziness got him — stuck between a rock and hard place, to borrow from the title of Ralston’s autobiography, and eventually without a fairly crucial appendage.
So what are we supposed to take from this flick, both us “crazies” and the “normal folks?”
Simple: Don’t go out alone into the wild lands without telling someone where you’ve gone. Just in case the previous 90 minutes didn’t already deliver that message, in the movie’s text epilogue on Ralston’s life as of late, the last line is that he never goes anywhere without telling someone first.
It’s like one of those ancient Greek sagas where some poor mortal had to go to the gates of hell and back just to learn a really simple lesson at the mere pleasure of some god. In this case, I guess the mortal was Ralston and the great learned god would be, what, Hollywood?
Well, forgive me father Hollywood, for I have sinned, probably a lot. In general, I’m not a big fan of solo sojourns.
I can’t explain it either. Some activities, like mountain biking, I can do all day by myself, and nearly prefer it. Yet backcountry skiing by myself gives me the heebie-jeebies.
In part, I know it’s because on an established trail, you’re never really alone, especially in the middle of an Alaska summer. I recall once when a kid taking up the rear in a group biking over Resurrection Pass shrieked in disbelief when I said I was the only one passing by.
“You’re alone?” he asked.
“Well, no. You’re here,” I shouted back.
The other aspect is mental. On a tight, winding trail, my thoughts are contained by the trees on either side of my handlebars and the narrow, twisting corridor ahead.
Alone in the quiet, open spaces of a snow-covered glacial valley, though, all there is to look at is enormity, everywhere. It’s hard not to feel like a speck of dust.
Danger lurks everywhere, too, and rarely out of sight — in unstable slopes, overhanging cornices, covered crevasses and tumbling boulders.
The fact that I’ve simply slunk through an open window into the home of the mountains around me is evidently clear, and all I hope for is to enjoy their furnishings and get back out without their notice.
If I do go alone I try to make sure someone at least knows where I’m at. But when you’re 25 and living alone, very far from what was once home, making sure someone knows where you are all the time is just not always possible. Heck, I’m not even always sure where I’m going sometimes.
It’s a big responsibility to go saddling someone with being your guardian, too, especially when they have lives of their own. And like wearing a helmet, or any other safety device, just because someone knows my whereabouts shouldn’t really be modifying my decision-making anyhow.
Most importantly is the understanding that things can go wrong in the blink of an eye, with your best friend at your side or all alone. It’s just the way it goes. Play it safe from the get-go, and if it does go wrong, plan to take care of yourself, like Ralston, because help may not be coming.
But what do I know? Sorry Hollywood, I’ll call you next time I can’t get a partner.

Dante Petri is a backcountry enthusiast often blazing trails from the Kenai to Anchorage and beyond, whether on foot, bike, ski or anything else that gets him around. Read more about his adventures at


Anonymous said...

Dear Dante

I am too fat from setnetting all Summer and pounding silvers and rainbows all Fall. How can I get in shape for skiing?

Kathartic in Kasilof

Dante said...

Don't worry buddy, the white carpets are rolling down the slopes.