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Go Solo Hiking

Why solo hiking lets you see the wilderness (and yourself) in a new way.

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I RECENTLY WENT HIKING in the Medicine Bow Mountains, near my home in Wyoming. Alone. I brought no cell phone or sat phone or locator beacon, and told no one, not even my wife, where I was going. I slipped out of the house at 4 a.m., listened to the BBC while driving up to 11,000 feet, then set off on a 7-mile circuit that included two summits. At this elevation, in June, the landscape was still buried beneath a thick plate of snow, which made cross-country travel—at least early on a cold morning—easy and direct.

When I arrived at a high lake I had planned to cut straight across, I found it only partially frozen. Long blue leads of meltwater sliced across the white ice like crevasses. Nonetheless, I thought I could see a way to the distant shore. I stepped onto the ice and crunched out to the first lead, then turned right, tiptoeing along its edge until it narrowed enough for me to jump to the next jigsaw piece of ice. If I questioned the wisdom of proceeding like this alone, I don’t recall it. The tactic worked and I gradually zigzagged across the lake. However, on the far side I discovered I was stranded on the ice thanks to a crescent strip of open water separating me from the shoreline.

Going back the way I came was unacceptable. I’d made too many desperate leaps. I searched left and right, eventually finding a crust of ice that bridged over to the talus. It was clearly too thin to walk on, so I laid down on my stomach, dispersing my weight, and used the pick of my ice axe—stretched out in front of me in both hands—to pull myself forward.

This awkward, horizontal maneuver got me within 5 feet of shore before I heard a dreadful cracking sound and felt a shudder in the ice that went straight up into my guts. I had the briefest moment to contemplate my fate before I fell through the ice.

Ever since Aron Ralston got himself caught between a rock and a hard place in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, hung there for five days, and then amputated his right forearm to escape, going solo has gotten a bad rap. When his story comes up in conversation, someone inevitably proclaims that “Ralston was an idiot. Going alone is stupid.” Such a person is someone who should not go alone into the wilderness.

Ralston’s mistake, if he made one at all, was not that he went alone, but that he failed to leave word with someone of his likely whereabouts. I have gone out alone and told no one where I was going too many times to count.

Is this behavior really reckless and irresponsible? There was once a time when exploring the backcountry by yourself was seen as a primary path to understanding topography, both geographical and psychological. Our most cherished wilderness heroes—Thoreau and Muir, Leopold and Abbey—frequently went on solo adventures. Can you imagine free-spirited Muir leaving precise notes about where he planned to wander? In Walden, Thoreau’s manifesto about humankind’s relationship to nature, he writes, “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Leopold spent weeks alone on horseback in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness without a second thought. And Abbey! He would have pissed on a personal locator beacon.

What’s happened in the last few decades? It feels as if the weight of technology has ironically pushed us back into the Dark Ages, when the wilds were believed to be so treacherous and malevolent that they could not be assailed alone. The modern mantra is you must go with a partner, or better yet, a group.

But does that really get you where you want to be?

“Distrusting our capacity to be alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves,” writes Sarvananda in Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View. This seems to me to be a clarifying description of our hyper-social age. Simple as it sounds, to actually know yourself you must sometimes be by yourself.

Falling through the ice on a frozen alpine lake, miles from help, is a classic hiker’s nightmare. If you’re alone, it is presumed that the cold water will instantly paralyze your body and your boots will fill with water and you’ll be helplessly dragged down into the shadowy depths, bubbles streaming from your mouth, your eyes slowly rolling back in your head.

In the event, as I was going under I was simultaneously flailing valiantly with my ice axe. The pick happened to stick into a sizable block of ice and I managed to drag myself out of the freezing black water with remarkable alacrity. My head didn’t even go under. I scrambled to shore, leapt to my feet, and shook like a dog. I was surprised to find myself no worse for wear other than being thoroughly soaked and cold. Very cold. Both the air and the water temperature were barely above freezing. The thought of hypothermia (a miserable, self-inflicted condition I’ve had many times) flashed through my mind and briefly made me feel stupid for not having simply walked around the lake. What a silly way to go! But then, thankfully, my rational self spoke up: Deal. Don’t whine.

With nothing but snow and rock for miles, building a fire was out of the question. And with no lovely lass with whom to strip naked, slip into a sleeping bag, and get deliciously rewarmed flesh-to-flesh (an obvious point against going solo, it must be said), my options were limited. I peeled off my gaiters, unlaced my boots, ripped off my pants, emptied the water out of my boots, wrung out my socks, wrung out my pants, and put them all back on in a matter of minutes. Then I struck off up the mountain at a pace so hellish it was certain to pump warm blood through my entire body.

Boot-kicking and swinging my ice axe rhythmically and ceaselessly, I ascended a 1,000-foot couloir in 20 minutes. By the time I reached the top my body was throwing off heat like a steam engine. My clothes? Dry.

Standing on the summit of this insignificant little mountain, I was glad that I’d left no word of my plans, that no one on earth knew my whereabouts. Had I told someone where I was going, there would have been a tether. Without it, I was free! It was just me and the mountain. Flesh and granite, ice and sky. Between my brush with hypothermia and the fast ascent and the knowledge that I was utterly alone, I felt so invigorated my heart almost lifted me off the ground.

Was it reckless to keep going upward in wet clothes in freezing temps? Would I have suffered Ralston-level ridicule if another accident had struck and I’d left myself no margin for safety? Probably. But I felt confident in my assessment of the conditions and my experience. Which brings up a critical component of smart solo travel: Know your limits. Without companions, you must think for yourself, make decisions for yourself, and be willing to bear the consequences on your own. You must know your abilities well enough to separate acceptable challenge from dangerous folly. This requires an internal truthfulness not often demanded of us in modern life. On your own in the wild, the threat of serious consequences sharpens the experience and intensifies decision-making. You become your only safety net; there is no plan B.

Everyone has to assess his or her own comfort level with the risk of going alone—and we should avoid condemning others’ judgment. In Yosemite a few years ago, I interviewed Alex Honnold after his barrier-breaking free solo (alone, no rope) ascent of Half Dome. “Technically, you should be able to free solo anything you can lead well with a rope,” he told me. “The moves are exactly the same; it’s all a matter of the strength of your mind.” The fact that Honnold is the only person in the world who thinks it’s wise to climb a sheer 2,000-foot stone face without a safety net doesn’t mean he’s reckless, it simply underscores the vast range of human ability. For a hiker of moderate experience, backpacking alone for several days may be just as challenging, and rewarding, as a free solo ascent is to Honnold.

But can you encounter unexpected obstacles on even the “safest” itinerary? I certainly hope so. Obstacles are your opportunities to prove your resourcefulness, your equanimity, and your resolve. As the 1st century Stoic philosopher Epictetus sagaciously put it, “Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”

Beyond solitude and challenge, there are other legitimate reasons for solo backcountry travel that offset the potential risks. How often have you wanted to do an adventure but lacked a partner? How often have you planned something great and then had a partner pull out at the last minute? How often have you had a partner say she’d pick you up at 3 a.m., but then call at 9 a.m. moaning that she overslept? Once you quit counting on other people to make your trip work out, you’re emancipated. You want to go? Damn it, just go!

On your own, you go at your own pace. You want to run, by God run. You want to stop and take photographs, hell, do it. You want to kneel and examine every frigging flower, go for it. Doing something alone is the birthright of every human, and going solo into the wilderness turns out to be—not surprisingly, since we were once of the wilderness—one of the most primeval and empowering opportunities 21st-century humans can experience.

But. There’s always a “but,” and this is a big one: Hiker, know thyself. And know the hazards. If you don’t have sufficient skills and knowledge for solo travel, go with someone who does, and learn. And even for experienced hikers, some situations and places pose unusual dangers. As much as I’d like to just state baldly, “Go solo!,” and leave it at that, the world is messy and such a decree would be overreaching. There are limits. I’m saddened that solo travelers—especially women—face human threats in remote but crowded places (Nepal, Africa, the AT). And moving through grizzly country I’ve found much less stressful with a companion. More than once I’ve had to scare off a curious or furious griz by banding together with my partner to appear big. Whether the danger is human or wild, the benefits of solitude won’t come easily if you fear for your safety.

Also, in my experience, long solo journeys simply aren’t as much fun alone as they are with a companion (though one could argue this means I just haven’t spent enough time by myself yet). Most of us are social animals, and after a few days or weeks alone, we desire human contact.

Ultimately, of course, you can never know for sure if going alone is the right call. The wilderness is just not that predictable. I once soloed the Sheila Face of 12,316-foot Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. To get to the Empress Hut near the base of the face, I had to traverse the Hooker Glacier, leaping one mortal crevasse after another without partner or rope. The next morning, the climb itself went well, but on the summit I realized I’d screwed myself. I couldn’t downclimb what I’d ascended—it turned out to be too technical—and every other descent route involved passing over enormous glaciers riven with crevasses. I’d forded the Rubicon alone and there was no way back.

I sat on the summit for a long time, eating my lunch, drinking my water, trying to figure a way out of my predicament, fearing that I’d crossed the line from reasonable challenge to reckless risk.

Then a savior arrived: a Kiwi guide with client in tow. He was thrilled to have a third person on the rope, protecting both himself and his client (not to mention, me) through the treacherous ice fields. We descended the Linda Glacier, sneaking across delicate snow bridges and jumping yawning crevasses, arriving without mishap at the Plateau Hut after dropping 5,000 feet in five hours. Needless to say, I was grateful for the help.

Which raises one more point in favor of solo travel: Going alone, it turns out, is sometimes the best way to appreciate having partners.

Mark Jenkins wrote about Steve Brumbach’s quest to hike in all 439 USFS wilderness areas in the September 2014 issue.

Safety Without Numbers

Key tips for solo hikers

1. Pack wisely.
Decide which extras to bring—like a sleeping bag or bivy sack on a long dayhike—by weighing the consequences of not having it against the burden of carrying too much. Always carry a signaling or communication device.

2. Be realistic about your abilities.
Stay within comfortable limits for mileage, elevation gain, navigational challenges, and technical skills. Choose a familiar trail for your first solo. Err on the side of caution.

3. Consider the consequences.
Before taking even routine risks (like crossing a moderately challenging stream), evaluate the potential dangers. Never rule out an alternative route or simply retreating.

4. Leave word.
The author’s preferences notwithstanding, you should give your itinerary—including emergency routes—to a friend or family member, with clear instructions on who to contact if you fail to return on time.

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Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.