Friday, March 18, 2011

Safety nets

It started with a quiet whisper into the thunderous void, which is usually what I feel like I'm doing when I randomly post a comment on Twitter: "To take a sleeping bag or not to take a sleeping bag in the White Mountains 100? That is the question."

I still find it hard to believe that anyone actually reads or responds to the incomprehensible babble feed that is Twitter, so I was surprised when my friend Bill fired back with a counter-question: "Well, what have you done in the past?"

The Susitna 100 forced me to carry a sleeping bag — it was part of the 15-pound gear requirement that included an emergency survival system and 3,000 extra calories of food. Unlike its sister race to the south, the White Mountains 100 has no required gear. I could show up to the frigid starting line in a jersey and shorts with a single water bottle and a couple of Gu packets, and no one is going to stop me from embarking on this remote 100-mile ride around an uninhabited, frozen swath of mountain passes and valleys north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Sure, I'd be strongly discouraged, maybe even asked to sign an extra liability release, but ultimately, these are my toes to lose. I like this about the White Mountains 100. Freedom of choice.

Last year, I didn't carry full survival gear in the race. Instead, I carried a bivy system comprised of a 32-degree summer sleeping bag, nylon bivy sack, closed-cell foam pad and fire-starter supplies, reasoning that this 2.5-pound system would probably keep me alive in an emergency situation, probably ... although I had no real knowledge because there was no testing. Last year's White Mountains 100 was cold, down to 25 below at night, and I did experience a couple hours of discomfort and deepening cold due to sweating out my base layer during the day. But ultimately, I didn't even need my lightweight bivy gear. Why bring it at all?

But Bill's counter-question also raised my defenses: What if I fall into overflow and soak out essential clothing? (as has happened to me before, with serious consequences.) What if I slip on frozen overflow and break my leg? (There were a few sections of side-sloping trails where thick ice cascaded over the slope like a waterfall. A fall in the wrong spot could have been fairly catastrophic.) What if there is a big storm I don't have the strength to push through, or that hinders my ability to navigate? In all of these admittedly unlikely situations, the ability to hunker down indefinitely could mean the difference between life and death. Not carrying my winter bivy gear will mean the difference of a less awkward packing system on the Fatback, and about six or seven pounds.

Bill's and my exchange moved to e-mail, where it promptly devolved into a philosophical discussion, probing at the existential angst of modern life and the very reasons why I might even bother to enter a race like the White Mountains 100, let alone schlep a bunch of mostly unnecessary gear across the otherwise useless, frozen distance.

"If you're teetering that much and it's pretty much a tie, just go with the bag. It's better to lose a place or two than your life," Bill wrote. "OR ... maybe without the bag you will be more in danger, which could translate to being alive and staying alive instead of just living. Did that make sense? Without the safety nets we have to struggle to live. With them ... well ... they are safety nets."

I don't always agree with Bill's methods but, to a certain extent, I do share his outlook — that modern culture and laws, population density and technology have forced us all into a comfortable corner where risk-taking in a natural setting is not only unnecessary but largely viewed as idiotic — and yet not taking risks makes for an existentially unfulfilling life. At the same time, everything in life ultimately is a risk — Bill pointed out that maybe I should consider bringing a parachute for the huge metal flying contraption that will take me to Fairbanks. What's acceptable risk, and what's not, is largely a personal and cultural decision.

"I admit the Susitna 100 scared me a bit," I wrote to Bill. "The points where it was 20 below and blowing 25 mph for a 48-below-zero windchill — those were a big confidence crusher. I was at the bottom edge of my comfort zone, and my means to control the situation were right at that edge as well. And of course the human body can endure a lot more than we believe it can — incredible survivor stories crop up every day, and prove this point. But I don't like that feeling. It's not exactly the feeling of being alive that I spend so much of my time seeking out — it's more like the feeling of being too fragile to function, of being precariously close to losing it all in a way the reminds us our lives don't amount to much. Kind of a grim outlook but that's why I try to avoid those situations as much as I can.

... That's actually also why I make a point of being so well prepared (over-prepared) for my larger outdoor activities. It's why I carry full backpacks in 50K races where there are aid stations every eight miles. I like to feel that I'm in control of my situations, of my destiny — that I don't need to depend on there being water at the next aid station, because what if there's not? Never mind that there always is."

Perhaps Bill makes a good point — that accepting risk only if it includes the security of safety nets nullifies the benefits of the journey along with the risks. Or perhaps — as has been my experience — safety nets are the greatest benefit of modern life. They enable me to explore the depths of my deeper primal urges while affording me not only comfort and longevity, but freedom — the freedom to choose, the freedom to experience my world, and the freedom to keep on living.