Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Wilderness Experience

"How's it going?" I smiled and asked, a moment after stepping out of the skin track.

"Great," the guy said, passing me on his way up. "I just can't get enough of this wilderness experience," he continued sarcastically, "with all these people." He shook his head and skied away.

So here's a little bit more context for the story.

We were backcountry skiing about a mile from the Mount Baker Ski area.  We could easily see the lifts and the parking lot in the distance.  It was a beautiful blue-bird sky Saturday with very low avalanche danger.  And there were probably over 100 people adventuring into the backcountry near the ski area...

While enjoying the absolutely perfect day, we came upon a number of people who really felt that there were too many people out there, that their "wilderness experience" was being tarnished by the volume of backcountry users.

A Crew of Snowboarders and Skiers in the Baker Backcountry
Photo by Jason Martin

To be perfectly honest, I was astonished by the attitude of these individuals.

Certainly it is possible to have a wilderness experience relatively close to the road.  Certainly it is possible to have such an experience within a mile of a major tourist attraction.  But it probably shouldn't be expected.

True wilderness experiences require some work.  In the instance here, the individuals who want to find true wilderness would have found a tenth as many people two miles from the ski area in the backcountry, and may not have seen another person at all if they had ventured four or five miles away.

It is somewhat selfish to feel that you deserve a wilderness experience close to the road, but that no one else deserves such an experience. 

Some backcountry destinations preserve an area's character by requiring permits.  There is certainly a level of legitimacy for this, but in these circumstances (like the Narrows in Utah's Zion, or an ascent of Mount Whitney, or a tour of Washington's Enchantments, etc.) an individual is deep in the wilderness.  These areas are so popular that without a permitting process, even when you get away from the road, there would still be people everywhere...

Most of the nation's outdoor recreation takes place within a mile or so of a road or a parking lot.  As such, it is quite selfish to feel that you deserve a wilderness experience close to the road, and that to preserve that experience no one else should be able to play where you're playing. 

If you want remote wilderness with nobody around, you have to work for it...

Jason D. Martin


  1. I'm definitely guilty of complaining about how full ski areas are, how many people are out on my favorite hiking trails (that are right off the road), and how busy (easily accessible) local climbing areas are. But you're right - if we're looking for solitude, we might have to work for it. All of the easy-to-get-to stuff is, well, easy to get to! And when I see dozens of groups climbing at a local crag, part of me is psyched that there are so many people out there who want to climb. It's good for our sport. And if I want a crag with no people, I might have to hike more than 10 minutes from the car!

  2. I'm with Katie - I think we've all been guilty of feeling "invaded" at one time or another. If you don't want to work for your solitude, learn to be comfortable getting to the easy spots when no one else wants to, i.e. when it's raining, frigid, soggy, or hot and sticky!

  3. Seriously. I totally agree with you Jason.

  4. It's nice to see this addressed. I'm tired of getting the sour look from Cranky McCrankypants when he sees me skin up into sight and his "wilderness" experience gets ruined. I love solitude as much as the next guy, but I also believe that the mountains bring out the best in people and we should appreciate folks we meet on the trail. I usually let out a big "Hello!" and mentally hear the grumbling as I go happily by. :)

  5. Sounds to me like the guy was making a joke, and it went right over the head of the wildernessier-than-thou crowd.

  6. I think around the Baker area especially the thing that will ruin anybody's "wilderness experience" is finding a nice quiet spot to take in the surroundings and then a group comes along shouting "what a f---n sick line dude!" and such. The whole conversation is F this and F that.

    I agree that it only takes a few minutes more of effort before the crowds thin out. Unfortunately for the average winter enthusiast in the Baker area those extra minutes or mile could take you into tricky avalanche terrain beyond their skills.

  7. we live in the PNW. its beautiful and a lot of people like to get out and experience the beauty. Unless im headed deep into the mountains on a multi-night trip, i expect to see mass quantities of people. personally, im really glad to live in a place where people like to get out into the mountains and wilderness areas and where they have a genuine respect for nature. that doesn't mean it doesn't bum me out a little bit sometimes running into a huge group at the top of a skin track, but im not gonna let it ruin my day. Just gets me more motivated to plan those long, commiting, and exciting trips and get me some of that solitude. totally agree with the blog. And if solitude was a quick walk from the road, it wouldn't be quite as wonderful and perfect a thing.


Thank you for your comment. An administrator will post your comment after he/she moderates it.