I took this photograph during an early morning ascent of Mt. Waddington in the Coastal Range of British Columbia. It was July, 1989, and we had traversed the range for nearly three weeks to get to this point. After bushwhacking through devil's club and slide alder we reached a treeless landscape of rock, ice and snow. Except for a helicopter dropping supplies at a food cache and another one dropping four mountaineers on a glacier, the only other souls we saw were members of our expedition. I was 21 years old.
That summer with the National Outdoor Leadership School was one of life's truly formative experiences. I found my independence, and discovered a pioneering spirit that would lead me to Africa and to a career in conservation. I realized I had the strength and stamina to carry ninety pounds for sixteen hours over ice fields and scree, but also learned humility in the mental discipline of mountaineering and the thin line between the contingencies for which one can control and the events one cannot.
The alpine wilderness, like its kindred the desert and the immense, rolling ocean, is utterly indifferent to those who venture beyond the confines of civilization. Yet we who do so are often transformed by the experience. Our senses quicken. We notice tiny worms swimming within the brilliant blue of glacial pools, and the insects blown over the mountains and strewn across the face of the ice. We draw ever nearer the surf on the rocky shore, testing the margin between ourselves and forces far greater and beyond our command.
When I was younger, the wilderness appealed to me not because I hoped to dominate it, daring the odds of survival with every extreme undertaking, but because of its promise of solitude, discovery and awakened sensitivity. I climbed mountains in confidence that I could do so unharmed, yet learned in those vast spaces that I was vulnerable. I wandered in deserts seeking mysteries.
Now I am no longer young, with bones that ache with the dropping barometer and a stronger sense of my own mortality. I am no more the solo wanderer, trekking from peak to peak, but a husband and father who moves to the meandering pace of his little people as we explore the world together. There are mysteries in a blade of grass, a wilderness in our own backyard. I would love to see the glaciers again, to climb the Grootberg and stare out over the Namibian escarpment while my tracks mingle with those of elephants in the sand of riverbeds below. But for now these adventures are part of my past, recaptured in my mind's eye and informing that inner wilderness of the heart.