the end of Isolation

Looking back at the McAllister Glacier

Looking back at the McAllister Glacier

I'm lucky to be familiar with a place called the Isolation Traverse. It was named by Lowell Skoog and company in the winter of 1983 for the lonely, remote stretch of North Cascades wilderness they crossed. I've been drawn there since I first heard of it. Three weeks ago I went there again with my wife and a good friend, but we weren't alone. Another team was headed for the same itinerary, albeit from a slightly different start. Although I was not surprised to see another party, I have been troubled since then, wondering how I can reconcile a love of wilderness solitude with a desire to see more people discover that same love.

The facts paint a strong picture: gear and technique in ski touring are improving; the culture of information sharing fuels the evolution and facilitates our access to wild places; and when one uses the term culture it must be understood to mean a deep commitment to this kind of adventure: people choose jobs and even whole careers in order to ensure that they can take advantage of the few brief high pressure systems that visit the northwest each winter. And top this off with the forthcoming guidebook from PGS and the Mountaineers, for which I am roughly 1/10 responsible. Is this a recipe for the end of isolation?

What has surprised me in these intervening weeks is that I find myself thinking not about solitude and how to get it, but about kinship--about connection to other beings. The intensity of my most recent visit to the Isolation arose from the strength of the connections that ski touring builds. First and foremost I mean the connection to my partners, with whom I share a reciprocal, heavy trust. But a journey like this builds other, less obvious senses of belonging:

  • Reading the other day in the first edition of Fred Beckey's Climber's Guide to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, I was struck once more by the vision of teenaged Fred and Helmy traveling through the Picket range in the summer of 1940. Think for a moment of the material reality of their journey: cotton and wool, leather boots, enormous packs, camp fires for cooking. No radio, no satellite beacon, no cell phone. Bad maps, no guidebook. There is no comparison with the mountain travels we undertake in the Cascades today, but there is lineage and evolution. They taught us where to go, just as we teach the next generation. Without a sense of history, alpinism is diminished almost to insignificance. One of the strengths of the sport is exactly that love of the past, our desire to be historians, archivists, antiquarians. If you've ever shaken Fred's hand, or run into him in the super market in Alaska, then you know the feeling that you somehow belong to a mountain family. And in fact other party on the Isolation was made up of old friends and acquaintances--cousins.
  • Alpinism echos older human endeavors. When human kind made its way over the land bridge from Asia some 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, they set the bar for adventure. Over the space of generations they traveled a wasteland recently laid bare by receding ice. Between the cold sea and the continental ice, they carved out settlements, adapted to the world--and continued their migration. They traveled in extended families, sharing group resources to overcome scarcity and danger. In my mind this is the greatest overland journey ever undertaken, and for me, traveling among the glaciers of the North Cascades brings that story to life.
Erin Smart finishing the run of a lifetime

Erin Smart finishing the run of a lifetime

  • Traveling with other humans in a wild setting reminds me of our kinship with other animals, and especially with wolves. Our shared history as social hunters once prompted us to respect and revere the wolf. But when we began to depend on livestock instead of hunting, we changed our tune. When we ski tour we share the work, breaking trail in turns and searching the horizon for our prey; wolves do the same. What we can do as a group of three or four is potentially far beyond what one might do alone. While I ski and climb alone from time to time, I believe my best efforts will be in the company of other wolves.
Bobcat tracks on the Cascade River Road

Bobcat tracks on the Cascade River Road

Of course none of this changes the increasing pressure on wilderness, or the troubling irony of tracked-out slopes in a place called Isolation. But for me it affirms that wilderness is serving one of its main purposes: to make people better, and more human. In that sense, for me, it is the end of isolation. For the rest, I'm currently working away at the the "Wilderness Ethics" section of our guidebook, looking for a way to invite the reader into the role of steward. By all means, I welcome your thoughts on the topic--drop me a line.

the view south from the Neve Glacier

the view south from the Neve Glacier