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Christian Beckwith

Christian Beckwith

Posted: September 24, 2010 12:09 PM

1991. On a Yugoslavian train, two young Americans faced one another across a table. Karine had a braid that wove around her shoulders and down her spine as she talked. Kathleen was a petite, voluptuous chain smoker with an acerbic wit and a laugh that started from deep within her notable body. Kendal, my Brazilian schoolmate, and I were supposed to be hitchhiking to Turkey, but a blizzard on the Austrian autobahn had intervened: the BMW that had given us a lift had pinballed off the guardrails on a slick, sweeping curve, and we had left the driver dumbstruck beside his crumpled vehicle and hitched a ride to the nearest village while the wet spring snows cloaked the valley. The next day the roads into Yugoslavia were closed, so we took the train. We met Karine and Kathleen soon after it left Belgrade. They were strippers from Seattle, journeying across Europe. To two young men in the midst of an adventure, they were catnip. Their next stop: Mount Olympus. We changed our plans.

The four of us disembarked late at night and made our way via taxi to the nearest beach. I put up my tent by headlamp while Karine and Kendal laid out their sleeping bags on the sand. When I unzipped the door, Kathleen threw her bag inside. By morning, we were a couple.

A midday bus brought the four of us to Litochoro, the gateway town at the base of Mount Olympus, and we began walking through forests of pine and cedar up the mountain. We soon discovered an abandoned monastery that had been bombed during World War II, the sundered walls blown open to the surrounding forest. We decamped into separate chambers, built fires in the corners of the rooms and lost ourselves while the smoke escaped into the night.

Later, I walked out to the cistern to gather water. Stars sparkled in the basin as I submerged my bottle, which filled with a glug. I straightened, and tilted my head back to drink, the water almost startling in its cold clarity. Then in my peripheral vision I noticed a glimmer.

I lowered the bottle and looked down. It was trash, scattered around the cistern: wrappers, plastic sheathes, cigarette packages, reflecting the starlight. I stood for a moment peering at the wrinkled cellophane while the water in the cistern shimmered.

Out of nowhere a sensation swept through me. My eyes traveled from the cistern to the trash and back. The sensation pulsed. It was like a wind, but far vaster, as if space itself had traveled down the pinpricks of starlight to enter my skin and expand into whatever universe lay inside.

A moment later I was sobbing, the bottle on the ground, tears propelled by full-body jags. I had no idea why I was crying, but I couldn't take my eyes from the trash strewn out as far as I could see into the murk. Crushed, crumpled, discarded, this byproduct of our lives, this detritus of our species. The forest, the stars, the mountain: they felt perfect, an integral part of the dark and the silence. The trash didn't. What was so incongruous about the rubbish at my feet that made it different from trash anywhere else? I had no idea. The question itself didn't register. But my body continued to convulse with sobs.

I've spent the twenty years since trying to understand that moment. It's like religion: it's hard to define in rational terms. But I think I'm getting closer.

Later that year I took up climbing, and over the next two decades I traveled to mountain ranges around the world in pursuit of the most powerful experiences I could find. In 1993 I moved to Jackson, Wyoming, to climb. With the passing years, as I followed an edge where physical certainty leaves off and psychological possibility begins, I gained a better appreciation of myself as an individual and as a participant in the world. In risk, I discovered, lay a chance to explore internal landscapes. Without risk, there was no adventure. Without adventure, I came to find, I was not whole.

In the years since that trip I've met a number of men and women who share a similar perspective. Often, they are climbers, skiers, surfers, pilots. Like me, they are in love with mountains and rivers, valleys and skies. The majority of us find the fullest measure of life testing ourselves against the wildest features of our environment. In the beginning, these people were my partners in the backcountry. Over time, they became my friends. Now I realize that they are my tribe.

Adventure is an experience where the outcome is uncertain. The grating of granite beneath our crampons, the tinkling of powder as we float through an unbroken slope, the vast roar of the ocean as we drop in on a reef break: these are the mediums through which we understand ourselves. The lessons of the wild are infinite, unbounded by sky or skin.

As the years have passed, and my relationships with both the wilds and the people who love them have deepened, I've come to see that we play on a periphery. The edge we pursue is an intersection of man and nature on nature's terms. And I now realize that those who regularly venture into it develop an extraordinary perspective, one that has increasing importance in our changing world.

While he may not be a biologist, the paraglider who pilots his wing from the Tetons to the Wind River mountains crosses roadless swathes of land at a slower speed and a lower altitude than a plane, and the bark beetle's impact on the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one he sees firsthand. When a climber, year after year, climbs the Grand Teton, she notes the developmental patterns of glaciation in the Black Ice Couloir in a way most geologists will never see. Skiers watch with vested interest the patterns of our winters, and oral traditions delivered by the elders yield contextual knowledge of the backcountry: which slopes are safe, which ones are not, how the snowpack this year creates hazards last seen half a century in the past. Adventure athletes frequent the frontlines of a changing world, and their observations are becoming more valuable as we try to understand it.

There is another dimension to this interaction as well. In our youth, we tend to focus on the activity itself: the next climb, the next wave, the next flight, the next adventure. But as the years pass and our physical abilities mature, we often evolve toward a responsibility that includes greater concerns. If we love what we do, we feel an obligation to preserve it. We become stewards of our pursuits, and the environments in which they occur.

In 2009, I helped start the Teton Boulder Project, a grassroots effort to build a bouldering park in downtown Jackson. My motivation was in part selfish: I wanted more climbing, closer to home. But I was also inspired by the Teton pioneers. Their physical accomplishments had sparked my imagination when I first started climbing, and their evolution as conservationists, historians and caretakers of our mountains highlighted a responsibility I might otherwise not have known. By creating a tribute to them, I hoped to inspire the next generation of climbers, who in turn might become stewards in their time.

Other organizations in Jackson operate along similar lines. Friends of Pathways develops networks of non-motorized trails throughout our valley. The Avalanche Forecast Support Organization sustains avalanche reports, which give skiers and snowboarders the knowledge they need to make good decisions in the backcountry. The Jackson Hole Kayak Club teaches kids how to paddle the rivers; the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club teaches them how to ski. Such nonprofits invest in the adventure lifestyle today, but they're also shepherding the next generation into the tribe.

The world's a big place, and the problems confronting it are legion. There isn't a single person out there capable of saving the whole darn thing. The best we can do is to focus on something we care passionately about and devote ourselves to its cause. Adventure athletes are not often doctors saving lives or humanitarians building schools. We're fun hogs, maturing in the environment that has given us meaning. But while saving the whole earth is beyond our scope, we can, with the help of our community, make a difference in the places we like to play.

I've made my living chronicling our adventures, first with The Mountain Yodel, a 'zine that documented the art, writing and photography of Teton climbers, then with The American Alpine Journal, an annual compendium of significant climbs from around the world. In 2001, with Marc Ewing, I started Alpinist Magazine, a coffee-table quarterly that picked up where the AAJ left off. In 2004 I started the Alpinist Film Festival as a way to explore the adventure lifestyle through the medium of film. In all of these publications and events I advocated a responsibility to the world that recognizes that our resources--including adventure itself--are finite. It's our duty to sustain those resources for our sakes, and that of our children.

The Alpinist Film Festival created another way of giving back. Each year, in a program we called "Adventure Philanthropy," we selected one nonprofit devoted to the sports we covered--climbing, skiing/snowboarding, surfing--and donated a portion of the Festival's proceeds to them. In five years we raised some $30,000, which we gave to organizations such as the Central Asia Institute, SurfAid and the Khumbu Climbing School. All of these groups grew out of a love for a particular sport, and then developed into a way of giving back.

Now, as I ready to launch my next venture--Outerlocal, a network of adventure-sports websites devoted to "the sports that can kill you and the people who love them"--adventure philanthropy will again be part of the business. This time I'm calling it "adventropy", but the focus will be the same. Outerlocal's Adventropy Program will support the people and places of our inspiration by promoting nonprofits devoted to their well-being. The program has two objectives: to raise awareness for Adventropy members, and to provide them with financial support. By showcasing organizations whose focus complements our editorial mission, and by creating ways for our users to donate directly to them, Adventropy underpins our goal: to share our adventures while preserving the places in which they occur.

I've got no idea if our Adventropy Program, or Outerlocal itself, will succeed. That's OK: without risk, there's no adventure. But I am certain of one thing. That night on Mount Olympus contained a lesson. If I love something, I have a responsibility to preserve it.

I've had an incredibly fortunate life. Food, water, shelter: I've never worried about the basics. Additionally, I've discovered adventure sports, and the places they have taken me and the people I've met en route have enriched my life. In a month, my wife and I will have our first child. I owe it to my daughter to make sure she, too, has a place to pursue her dreams. Adventropy is my way of doing so.

What's yours?