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The Solo Experience

Author: Will Isaacson
Date: April 07, 2004
A year and a half ago, when I first met Joe Maher, I thought to myself, "Here is one really crazy kind of guy!" Ever since I was a Boy Scout, I had been told, "Never go off into the woods alone." Now here I was listening to this guy for whom going off into the woods alone was, for him, the best way to go. Not only does he regularly go off into the woods alone, he makes it a point to go into the most remote and isolated spots in the woods that he can find. And if that isn't enough, once he gets to a spot like that, he goes and hauls himself up into the tallest tree he can find. He insisted that this was the finest kind of adventure; and the most rewarding, if you happen to like experiencing wilderness.

Since then I have discovered that maybe old Joe wasn't quite as crazy as I had thought. The secret is to realize that going solo requires that the outdoor adventurer be willing to embrace and follow a whole new set of rules. It also requires that one be willing to reframe one's concepts of wilderness, remoteness, danger, and risk. Most importantly, the solo traveler who wishes to maximize the experience of wilderness adventure must be willing to become part of the wilderness rather than stand above it. The solo wilderness adventurer must be willing to accept wilderness on terms set by wilderness rather than try to set terms demanding that wilderness succumb to the presence of the adventurer. Become a part of the wilderness rather than stand apart from the wilderness.

Before going off on a solo wilderness climb, the successful adventurer must first be comfortable with the idea of being alone in the woods. The solo wilderness climber must first be a competent solo wilderness traveler. This level of comfort can be attained by understanding that wilderness is not nearly as dangerous as believed by most people. Most of the dangers are imagined rather than real. Most of the dangers have been created in the minds of adventurers who are more interested in having a good story to tell rather than having a safe story to tell. Most of those who have had a bad experience in the wilderness did so because of a lack of competence in wilderness skills or because of a lack of confidence in their ability to cope with Mother Nature on her own terms. Such comfort can only be gained through an acquisition of knowledge relating to wilderness and by spending a lot of time there. It is suggested that this be done in stages. Joe will tell you that the best way to gain competence and confidence is incrementally; in steps.

In addition to being comfortable with the idea of being alone in the woods, the adventuring solo tree climber also needs to possess a high degree of competence and confidence as a climber. Not only does one need to have the basic skills for climbing, the solo wilderness climber additionally needs to have other skills that can be used to back up the basic skills when things don't go according to plan. The competent solo wilderness climber will have more than one way to ascend, more than one way to descend, and more than one way to move about through the canopy. The safe solo climber will also know what to do when one method doesnÂ’t work, and another method is called for. The competent solo wilderness climber will also know how to pursue the activity with minimal amounts of equipment. Wilderness travel is not compatible with the idea of taking along every imaginable piece of climbing equipment available. Those overloaded with equipment will be very uncomfortable and not get very far. And finally, the solo wilderness climber must be adept at resolving problems that could necessitate self-rescue. A solo wilderness climber must be able to function as the only available option for a rescue. Go slow, stay low, and take it easy until you know you are ready.

Now, I suppose most of you are asking, "Why would anyone want to go climbing alone in the woods?" That's easy! Solitude. Intimacy with the wildlife. The opportunity to go one on one against Mother Nature at her finest. To challenge yourself. To prove yourself. To be able to proceed on no one's agenda but your own. Because the quality of wilderness experience is inversely proportional to the number of people present. Because there is no one else that wants to go climbing when you want to go climbing. Those are just for starters.

I recently made a backpacking trip into a wilderness area in a mountainous region of the southern Appalachians. There were three of us and the idea was to hike several miles to the top of a relatively high mountain reported to have a very spectacular view and spend three days in that area with the mountaintop as our base camp. At the last moment I decided to throw a rope and harness into my pack. I figured that I would only have to carry it on the first and last days so, with that rationalization, I added the load to my already slightly overweight backpack. I was very glad later that I had.

The hike to the mountaintop was quite exhausting and none of us was feeling particularly active the following morning. My companions hung about our camp as I flung my climbing gear over my shoulder and announced that I was going to walk out the ridge to our northwest to see if I could find a tree with a view. A slight downhill walk into a saddle followed by a more strenuous climb up onto the ridge took me into a trail-less area where there was little sign that others had been there before me. I followed the ridge, determined to continue until it began its downhill slope into the valley to the north. A half-mile later I was at the northernmost point on the ridge and everything in front of me was downhill. I began looking about for a tree. There was nothing at all here that was particularly high, but I could see that anything I picked would probably have a magnificent view. I settled on a large white pine that appeared to be the highest thing on the ridge. I tossed my throwline, hauled up the rope, then took a break for a short nap, some gorp, and a long drink of water. Rested, I was ready to climb.

The climb was simple, although quite dirty. By the time I was seventy feet up, I was covered in bits of bark and had gotten sticky resin all over my hands, my rope, and my tee shirt. I was considering a termination of the climb when a shadow raced across the limbs around me and I had a quick glimpse of a large bird passing above the tree. It wheeled above my head and I realized that the bird was involved in a dogfight with a couple of crows. It was a large red tailed hawk and the crows were showing absolutely no mercy. The hawk finally turned tail and raced away to the east, the two crows in hot pursuit. The event had taken my mind away from the dirt and the resin and I settled on a fat limb perch and studied the view. I was content to be right here, even though I could have climbed another ten to fifteen feet higher. The sun was warm, the breeze light, and the air clear and sharp. There was no sign of civilization, no sign of any other human, and I was able to understand that I was sole owner of all I could survey. Very heady feeling, you understand.

I was wedged safely between one limb and the trunk with my weight settled onto another limb. It was all quite comfortable and after a bit I actually fell into a light doze. It was later that I opened my eyes with the sense that I was no longer alone. I looked around, thinking perhaps that I was being joined by either one or both of my hiking companions, but there was no one below me. I looked up and was not surprised at all to find that I was sharing the tree with the aforementioned red tailed hawk. At least I assume it was the same hawk. He was now perched on the topmost point of the tree and staring to the east. His antagonists, the crows, were nowhere to be seen.

For almost half an hour the hawk and I shared the top of the tree. During that time neither of us had moved and I was not even sure if he was aware of my presence. Finally, the lengthening shadows below caused me to decide that it was time to return to earth and to the companionship of my fellow man. I sat up, watching the hawk to see his reaction. He looked down at me, spread his wings, closed the wings, then spreading them again, he was gone.

Only the solo wilderness climber could have had such an encounter and it was because of this one event that I have decided that there is nothing at all crazy about solo wilderness climbing. I have found that such encounters are a very regular occurrence for those who choose to go quietly and go alone. I now go solo climbing in the woods anytime I get the chance.

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