Alone in the wilderness. This thought conjures up fear for most people. What if something bad happens to you and you need to get help? What if you get hurt? What if you get lost? What if you absolutely enjoy the solitude of the wilderness by yourself?My first solo overnight trip into the wilderness was when I was about 20 years old. I skied into the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada north of Yosemite National Park. The first difference I noticed was that all the decisions were up to me. Where to camp, where to ski each day, and when to stop and rest. It felt strange at first. This was in the days before satellite beacons, cell phones, and GPS. I paid special attention to not get injured or break a ski — although I question whether this is a controllable option?
Now I enjoy taking a solo wilderness trips. Being alone in the wilderness accentuates my senses. I hear more, see more, and absorb more of what wilderness provides.
Nature photography requires a lot of time and patience. Often I hike into areas to photograph wildlife with expectations of sitting around patiently for the critters to appear. It seems selfish of me to ask someone else, especially if they are not a photographer, to come along and wait for me as I photograph.
This past spring I camped out solo for nine days in the Utah desert photographing a herd of wild mustangs. I did not see another person the entire time. My camp was very quiet. I do not usually light a campfire. The herd of wild horses came over to investigate me after my fourth night. I believe that they felt comfortable approaching me since I was so quiet. Eventually almost all the horses in the herd were within 100 meters of my camp. Their facial expressions were of curiosity and not fear. Similar to mine. After our introduction the herd was much easier to photograph. Watching their behavior over the course of a week was amazing. They are extremely smart and they work as a team, with different stallions leading smaller tribes as part of the entire herd led by one over-arching stallion.
My longest solo wilderness trip was a three week ski traverse in the Sierra Nevada. That trip required some tricky route finding decisions in between late season snowstorms. It does help to have a partner to discuss different route options. “Two heads are better than one” applied here. When you are going solo all the decisions are yours — even the bad ones. After a full day of bushwhacking during a blizzard I realized my attempted shortcut was big mistake and I would have to backtrack after camping on a windswept pass. I had plenty of time to think about my mistake that night trying to sleep in a howling blizzard.
In case of an emergency being alone in wilderness raises the stakes a lot. When traveling solo I try to be more conservative and take less risks. Modern technology can help signal friends and authorities if you need help. Satellite beacons, satellite two-way text messaging, and satellite phones can help. They are however not a substitute for wilderness experience and good judgment. I was surprised at how much more comfortable I was knowing that I could let others know of my location — even though they were thousands of miles away. Perhaps a false sense of security.
Solo wilderness travel means you also get to do all the chores. Melting snow for water, cooking meals, cleaning dishes, pitching the tent, and all the other chores. This was a sobering reality on my solo Sierra ski traverse. I had to allow much more time each morning to pack up camp and get skiing before the sun warmed the spring snow too much.
In the days of my youth climbing and skiing in the Sierra Nevada I had a core group of climbing partners to do trips with. These partners were the best. We were used to each other and knew how to move fast together through the mountains or up a climb. We were comfortable with our individual nuances and able to get along as a team. As we got older and went our separate ways we do not climb as much together, although we still stay in touch and try to get out at least one trip together each year. I never realized how great these partners were until later on in life — I took a lot for granted. Now that I am older I find it is very hard to find quality partners for wilderness adventures. Either lack of experience or physical conditioning seem to be the first hurdle, followed by a lack of working as a team. The nice thing is that even after many years off, I can get together with my climbing partners of the past and we instantly click right into sync in the wilderness. Not only do we climb or ski well together, but we also motivate each other to push ourselves. On a solo adventure it is very easy to give up when the going gets tough.
My solo trips seem strange to some. That does not really matter though in the grand scheme of things. Being out in nature alone allows me to absorb more of what I love about the mountains. Solitude. I think it is good for everyone to have some solitude. Especially these days when we are constantly “interacting” with friends on our smart phones and social media. On one solo wilderness ski trip I could feel a vibration in the pocket of my ski pants. It felt like my cell phone vibrating letting me know of a new Facebook post, e-mail, or text message. I did not have a cell phone with me! How sick is that? It woke me up to the value of some time alone to contemplate and allow some time for myself and my thoughts. Being alone in the mountains is healthy. Try it sometime if you have not already. I think you will “get it” once you try it.