Connected in High Places

I submitted this essay to the 2017 Waterman Fund Essay Contest, which asked entrants to explore what humans build in wilderness. The essay committee did not select a winner this year but awarded my essay a ‘special recognition’ designation along with three others. It was important for me to reflect on the technological element of my developing relationship with the natural world, as I often bring my miniature supercomputer into the backcountry.

I stood on the roof of North America three times in the last two years. Each time I summited Denali, I looked out across the Alaska Range and thought, how did I get here? The literal answer is ‘with my legs,’ in addition to those things which make life possible and expedient in this place—the camps my clients and I build along the way, and the airport in Talkeetna from which we fly into the Range. But what really drove me to the top were the experiences I previously had in the outdoors that left me craving more. And ultimately it was the connections and conversations I had with friends and climbing partners that encouraged me to pursue them.

The way humans converse is changing faster now than at any other point in human history. Often, I wonder; how will conversations—about wilderness, and in wilderness—change in the future? Looking back, the relationship between technology and wilderness in my life feels complicated.

As a child growing up in Brockton, a small city in southeastern Massachusetts, I thought ‘the outdoors’ was the smattering of local ponds where my cousin and I would go to catch frogs and fish for bluegills. I thought adventures happened on-page and on-screen, in Hogwarts and Middle-Earth. And I did not so much think of what the wild was; instead I thought of where it was, and that was in ‘the woods,’ a couple hundred acres of undeveloped marshland behind my parents’ house.

Just beyond the property line, three hundred feet into the trees, there was a mossy stone pit—the foundation of a long-gone farmhouse the woods had reclaimed. It was a three-minute walk from the back door of the house to the foundation, but it felt miles distant. With the help of some friends, I covered the whole thing in tarps. To my father, a risk analyst who did not possess my imagination, the result looked like a deathtrap. To me, it was an outpost from which I spent solitary hours wandering the woods, a fort where my friends and I would go to adventure in our imaginations, and a wonderful place to be alone with my thoughts.

Years passed, and adolescent desires and social pressures mounted. My friends and I abandoned the foundation. Instead, we would play video games. At first we would play together, but soon we took everything online. With the advent of Instant Messaging, texting, and World of Warcraft, I could chat with my friends and see new places from the comfort of my bedroom. I took occasional trips out to the foundation when my dog needed to go out. Whenever I visited, it always seemed older and more boring than on previous visits, a shallow stone pit covered by fading blue tatters. My screens promised a world that was always new and exciting. They commanded my attention, far more than the foundation or the woods beyond.

I graduated from high school and started college in Boston. In my first year, I stopped playing video games, cold turkey. Instead, I prioritized studying, partying, and meeting new people. In my second year, a friend invited me to an indoor climbing gym. I enjoyed climbing and after that I visited weekly. Over my winter break, I tried ice climbing on a road cut on the edge of I-93 just a hair north of Franconia Notch. After battling my way to the top of the flow, standing at the anchor barely twenty feet above the ground, I thought; Saddle up, Jimbo. Adventure was mine and I was obsessed.

Thereafter, I prioritized ice climbing. Beyond my studies, before (most) parties, I spent the majority of my time in the White Mountains. Outside of the suburbs, away from Boston, my concept of wild land changed entirely. Compared to the bird sanctuary behind my house, the Whites were expansive. I visited crags pockmarked across the mountains as often as my schedule allowed. There was always something new to climb. Every taste of larger, longer climbs left me wanting more. In my apartment back at school, I pored over climbing magazines and trip reports, dreaming of long expeditions to stand atop frosty peaks. I realized that to fulfill those dreams, I needed to be good enough to face the challenges they offered.

So, to learn the basics of expeditionary climbing, I went with some friends to Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain. In winter, accessing the established climbing in the South Basin requires parking at the edge of Baxter State Park and skiing in over 17 miles of gently rolling forest road. My partners and I spent a full day skiing in, hauling sleds containing equipment, fuel, and food. Halfway through the approach, one of the poles which attached my sled to my backpack broke. I encouraged my partners to continue on as I repaired it. It took longer than expected, then broke when I tested it. I threw down my backpack, turned around, unhooked the pieces, and waved them above my head while screaming at the top of my lungs. Then I calmed down, feeling a bit defeated. As I stood there, I listened to the silence. Not a breath of air shifted. A smile broke across my face. The next repair went faster and lasted me to Chimney Pond, our basecamp in the basin.

For a week, we lived in rough-hewn lean-tos, covered by tarps and snow blocks. It was construction that dad would approve of. The mountain offered full days of movement in the alpine, over rock, snow and ice. There were certainly times when I got cold and scared, but at least I was getting cold and scared with the people who were quickly becoming my closest friends. We thought about people at home, and talked about them, but they were not with us. Life there was simple—climb during the days, return to camp to talk about climbing and life in the evenings, and chase off hungry pine martens in the middle of the night.

That simplicity appeals to me, so I have since returned to Katahdin in winter three times. There are no new trails and the lean-tos are still drafty. The ecology is maintaining—a healthy colony of habituated pine martens roams the campground looking for bits of freeze dried potatoes and ramen noodles. Nothing has changed about the built environment at Chimney Pond. But between my second and third visits a cell tower was erected outside Baxter State Park, probably along the interstate far away to the east. One member of our group discovered this and stole away to the bathroom frequently. Instead of answering nature’s call, he would answer calls from a friend. My phone was off and under a seat in the car, seventeen miles away, inaccessible. At the time, on the mountain, I did not think it was really worth bringing it to make spotty phone calls.

I changed my mind about the worth of bringing my phone to the mountains during the first trip I guided on Denali. Weather bound us to our tents for most of twenty-one days. I finished my thick paper book in the first week. Other guides had their phones, pre-loaded with books, podcasts, music, movies, and apps that turned their devices into fully functional GPSs. It is hard to argue against carrying a full library, hundreds of albums, visual entertainment, a navigational computer, and a camera when it all weighs a few ounces. I started carrying my phone.

On Denali, like on Katahdin, some people were able to get service by standing way outside of camp on the 14,000’ plateau. On a rest day, I sent a few novel text messages; Hi! from 14k on denali. In my second year guiding, a new tower provided reliable cell service in several camps. News from the outside world filtered in—one day, over breakfast, my group discussed the implications of the successful Brexit vote. Things were different with cell service; life outside was now a part of life on the mountain. I didn’t have a problem with it, because I was working up there, and in my downtime I could check in with friends and family. However, I never once stopped to consider what this meant for my wilderness experience.

It is fair to say that today, possession of a phone is edging towards a human need. In the United States, connection has become nearly ubiquitous—64% of American adults own a smartphone. Among young adults, those aged 18-29, the figure rises to 85%.¹ There’s a reason for that—as I learned on Denali, smartphones are just plain useful. Yet every day, beeps and buzzes in our hands and pockets demand our attention; Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, studies how mobile devices change human psychology and behavior. She concludes that the constant connection smartphones provide dramatically influence our relationships with other people and ourselves. “Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, [Turkle] contends, young people are losing their ability to empathize. [She writes], ‘It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent.’”² For us, the constant ability to connect creates an equally constant need to connect; “Continuous digital performance leaves [young people] experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as “disconnection anxiety.”² In short, most young people today have grown up holding a device that institutes substantial disruption in our lives. That disruption is so normalized, many of us feel anxious when it is absent—the times when we are alone. The times when it is quiet. This anxiety causes our attention to default to our phones, where we seek connection. As a result we do not pay deep attention to our local environment. Disruption is on tap wherever a signal exists.

For many people, being in the ‘wild’ may be part of the reason to be ‘wired.’ Sometimes, day-to-day communications in the backcountry are about important things. Up-to-date weather forecasts and the ability to call for rescue can provide a significant margin of safety in wilderness recreation if they are applied responsibly. Cell towers aside, satellite communications allow connection without cell service pretty much everywhere on Earth. However, most satellite options require additional hardware and a clear view of the open sky. When I have to physically move to find service, as with a satellite phone, it is easy for me to find the self-control to resist connecting unless I need to. But when I can look at my phone from a sleeping bag, it becomes easy to ‘just check’ for connection. And once I ‘just check,’ repeat impulses become hard to ignore. Instead of the fruits of the wild, my thoughts are drawn to the world at home. I expect many others have had similar impulses.

The behavioral implications of connectedness are at odds with some of the core benefits of wilderness. In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash details the role of wilderness in our culture. Of the many philosophical benefits of wilderness, he describes one of Edward Abbey’s tenets, “ [He] observed that in wild country we ‘confront, immediately and directly… the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental.’”³ He also describes research on practical effects of wilderness visits; “Professional psychologists and psychiatrists… supply clinical evidence in support of… the ability of a wilderness experience to simplify and slow down lives made overly complicated by civilization. In wild country people could find relief from noise, stress, and especially, from the presence of too many other people.”³ One clear value of wild space is that it provides a place to think, free from a world of proliferating choices; to get down in the grit and question what’s important in our lives. An escape from the world ‘outside.’ In my experience, and in the experience of so many others, wilderness is one of the best places to think without interruption. That, coupled with physical challenge, means wilderness experiences can be transformative. For me, one critical element of those experiences has been the development of self-confidence and independence that I brought back to daily life.

Without deliberate consideration of how we use our devices in wild places, that breed of experience is at risk. This is a new paradigm in the Northeast, where dense settlement demands universal coverage. Towers have gone up all over the place. Signal seeps in where it did not a few years ago and is available on most mountaintops. As networks get more powerful and additional towers are built, we can expect the continued erosion of ‘quiet’ areas. Most of the wild spaces in the Northeast that are easily accessed are already affected. They will serve as gateway ‘wilds’ for the next generation of outdoors people. Some federally designated wilderness areas in the Northeast are service-less. Perhaps the federal definition of wilderness should extend to cellular service and protect these lands from connection—after all, is a place wild if a person can call the world outside? Perhaps satellites make this question moot. But satellite technology is not by any means ubiquitous, whereas smartphones essentially are. To me, it seems there are two options left to pursue truly wild experiences. They both rely on personal choice. We can bring devices and exercise extreme self-control, or leave them behind and abstain completely. Either way, before we set foot on the trail with ourselves or our friends, it’s important to think about what kind of experience we really want to have, and start a conversation about how we converse in wild places.

This year, I took my fourth trip to Katahdin. Service improved since my previous trip. One night, after a day spent sitting out a storm in our lean-to, I turned on my phone and held it towards the ceiling, searching for a signal. Suddenly I found it, and messages rolled in. My phone died before I could respond to any of them. I sat there, frustrated by my sudden lapse in self-control. Then I mentioned some of the messages to my partner, who was also on his phone. We had some great conversations on that trip. But we were talking about things we learned from the outside world. We did not give each other, or Katahdin, five days of undivided attention.

Earlier that afternoon, he had an hour-long text exchange with his girlfriend. Halfway through the conversation, I asked him what he wanted for lunch. He kept typing, his face wrinkled in concentration, the screen reflected in his eyes. I shrugged to myself and turned over for a nap. I brought my phone for the GPS, but I found my finger tracing it in my breast pocket as I dozed. I shouldn’t turn it on, I thought. I lay there thinking about it until my partner put his phone down and asked, “What’s for lunch?”

Works Cited

(1) Smith, Aaron. “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015.” Report. 1 Apr 2015. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Web, accessed 8 Apr 2017.

(2) Weisberg, Jacob. “We Are Hopelessly Hooked.” Review. The New York Review of Books. 25 Feb 2016: The New York Review of Books. Web, accessed 5 Apr 2017.

(3) Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 2014.

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