Why is it that the most avid outdoorspeople seem to be the ones whose associated carbon footprints are the largest? A dabbler in the scene, who hikes one big mountain per year, carpooling to a relatively nearby trailhead with a group of friends, is not responsible for emitting much CO2 per year in their quest for mountain bliss. Compare that carbon footprint to those of the people you know who act out their love of mountains every summer weekend. Ignore the other differences in lifestyle between these people. How much CO2 is associated with their mountain adventures?
I’ll use myself as an example, circa 2014. Between hectic workweeks, it was my goal to cram my summer with as many summits of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks (so-called 14ers) as possible. I found myself driving 3 hours to a different trailhead in the Sawatch Range each weekend. There were many people like me. We swapped stories of which trailheads we drove to the weekend before, pointing out our previous conquests on the jagged skyline. I felt normal for doing it. I was having a blast, but a bigger picture loomed large; how could I justify emitting so much CO2 in this pursuit, when I knew full well the planetary effects of this greenhouse gas? How could I reconcile my wholehearted belief that these mountains were a special, spiritual, fragile place...when my visiting them was unquestionably doing them so much harm? How could I decouple my love from the undeniably detrimental effects of that same love? Why the paradox? It didn’t seem fair, so I left that stone unturned. Everyone else I met seemed to be doing the same. As far as I can tell, the situation has not gotten better out there.
For a long time, I recognized this type of inconsistency in my outdoor recreation philosophy, but I struggled to address it in a meaningful way. It just didn’t seem fair for me to agonize over this topic and to miss out on my beloved pastime as a result. Given the admittedly tiny impact any single person has in this vast world, would I forego my weekly deep-mountain excursions just because I recognized my hypocrisy? To put it bluntly, no. The raindrop never feels responsible for the flood.
I’ll skip over the details of my life in the interim. But here’s a summary: I worked hard to stop looking outward to others for answers, and turned inward. I like to think I sound a lot less like “Well everyone else is doing it, so it must be ok,” and a lot more like “I can no longer stomach my own hypocrisy, and I need to make personal choices to align my actions with my values.” What does this mean in practice? These days, if you see my car chugging up a winding mountain road and you ask me how I justify it, I have a damn good answer each time.
Many summer weekends in the past, you could find me resting atop a high mountain summit (which I’d often driven countless hours to access, alone), chuckling and wondering aloud, “Why do I do this?” I knew there was an answer inside me somewhere, and that was enough to keep me doing it. I won’t mince words - that was very selfish of me. I stole time away from worried loved ones who awaited my safe return down in the flatlands. I risked my life at times. I marked arbitrary summits off an arbitrary checklist (the extremely popular Colorado 14ers). And somehow people congratulated me for my accomplishments along the way. I felt very good when I walked down a mountain trail after defeating my latest mountain conquest, but the question persisted whether that feeling had anything to do with a checklist accomplishment.
Luckily for me, the mountains are great teachers. Even as I pursued my misguided peak-bagging, I was learning lessons along the way. The mountains challenge us in ways we don’t always understand. While our achievement-oriented mindset leads us to try and punch them in the face, they don’t budge. They hit back twice as hard. We cannot defeat a mountain; it allows us safe passage for the day (or not). We venture out and roll the dice each time we attempt to climb one. With care and planning, we can load the dice for a favorable roll, but we can still end up with snake eyes from time to time. The most arrogant among us deny this reality, and gloat about producing a favorable dice roll from the most dangerous dice. Think of the cocky bastards who brag about what they managed to accomplish with no sleep, no planning, no gear, no food, no water...you name it. This way of talking about the mountains seems to be becoming the norm. There is nothing to brag about. The mountains shrug and chuckle among themselves. We are fools to think otherwise.
I rolled dangerous dice in the mountain game more times than I care to admit. By a streak of luck, I came out the other side with a new understanding. It is a shame when someone loses the game before they can learn the lessons the mountains are patiently trying to teach. I am not special. I am lucky.
One day I was struck by a sudden realization. I didn’t reach the endpoint of some mountain enlightenment journey, just a small sub-summit. That journey has no end, for what it’s worth. I had just summited Longs Peak, a 14er in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. A stroke of luck had gotten me out of my sleeping bag early, and in an unplanned summertime rarity, I was the first to reach the summit that day. I realized it wasn’t an accomplishment, but a blessing. A silent mountain peak, the most prominent as far as the eye could see, all for myself. Clouds swirled around me and allowed intermittent glimpses of the boulderfield below. The physical feeling of bathing in the warm red light of sunrise matched my internal feeling of deep contentment. The imaginary lines that I drew to separate myself from the natural world dissolved for a moment; I was just a small part of everything. For once, I wasn’t asking why I did this kind of thing. I knew why. On the way down, I received ample congratulations for being first to the top. After a while, I started to bristle. I found myself thinking: That is not the point at all.
A second realization dawned on me: we all have our own reasons for being out there. I might have still judged those who did it for the outward praise, but I felt a layer of separation from anyone else, because my own reasons had somehow crystallized in my mind. I flipped back through my mental inventory of hikes. Yup, I was onto something. The peace at the summit, the solitude, the sense of taking a break from being part of the big bustling world of humanity, the burn in my legs, the settling of my nerves, the deep breathing of exertion, the temporary narrowing of my mind’s focus to the few rocky steps ahead of me. Holy shit. It was never really about 14ers. I felt foolish and wise at the same time. If I’m honest, I came down from that summit feeling like Moses holding the Ten Commandments. I had gone to the mountaintop and actually come down with something lasting and useful.
I went home and struck a large number of dangerous 14ers from my checklist, leaving only a few remaining trips that I felt were more certain to deliver the types of experiences I valued. I took a few more purposeful trips that summer, and then I rested. I enjoyed the mountain playground that exists in my backyard in Boulder. I biked to trailheads. I hiked the same mountains over and over, and to my surprise I kept drawing from a seemingly infinite well of contentment. I skipped the busy days and sought solitude. I maximized my stoke-to-CO2 ratio.
And I’m still learning how to do it, right now. I’m making my trips into the mountains count for something. I’m carefully planning. I’m figuring out how to take a bus to the southwestern corner of the state so I can access my most favorite mountains of all: the San Juans. I have a lot of plans, and they don’t involve me getting in my car very much. When I do hop into that complicated symbol of American freedom, I’m not driving much more than an hour to the trailhead. For a while I kept going further and further in the search for that mystical mountain juice, and I’m so glad I could stop before I made it a lifelong habit. I’m blessed to live in Boulder, with the sublime Western Continental Divide almost in my backyard.
But what about those rare indulgences, those further excursions? Should I give those up? I don’t think so, as long as I find a way to minimize my impact. So here’s where I’m headed, here’s why I started writing this long-winded essay that may seem to have no end. I’ve researched and daydreamed for months, and I’m headed to Lake Tahoe. I will set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail for the first time. I will compete in a wonderful, new-to-me type of race called the Vertical Kilometer: 5 kilometers horizontal, 1 kilometer vertical. Power hiking, baby. My bread and butter. And you know what? I’m not flying or driving there. I’m taking the train, a seemingly forgotten relic in these Benighted States of America. Just my luck, the California Zephyr will pick me up in Denver in the morning, traverse the Rocky Mountains by day, slink through the desert by night, and spit me out in the Sierra Nevada the next morning. Only a few miles from the race location. I’m very lucky to have these resources available to me: the time, the convenient and enjoyable low-carbon transportation, the money (thanks to a retirement savings account that filled up while I was too busy at a largely joyless job to spend much of the money I was making), and the support of my girlfriend (whose enthusiasm when I pitched this idea pushed me over the edge to take the trip).
I am going to ride a train from Colorado to California and back. Based on the things I value, that makes sense. It is a personal choice. I am going to spew some more word vomit onto the page as I take in the sights of the beautiful Rockies. I am going to reconnect with some of my most beloved buddies, too. I can’t wait. I’m coming out of my skin. This trip is going to mean a lot to me. And I know why I’m doing it.