The Age of Exploring is Over

An Explorer struggles with the illusion of discovery and living in a world where hidden gems are no longer hidden.

By: James Hueser
November 28, 2016

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What can I do that no one has done before? For all intents and purposes of this post, let's focus on the average human being - something I consider myself to be. There are no ascent speed records in my future. Nor are there going to be any opportunities to send a V15 or win an ultramarathon. I'm not going to live out of a van for the rest of my life seeking out something that nobody has ever seen before. But...I don't think I'm going to see anything that nobody has seen before.

Hiking Cloud's Rest in Yosemite NP - hardly and original photo.

I'm in an exciting part of my life where I'm exploring things that I didn't ever think would be possible for me to do. The exploration is a bit slower than I might like, but it's happening. A lot of things are new for me right now: I like that. I've spoken with people who have done the same hike 10 times in one year. While I appreciate the motivation it takes someone to hike up a mountain 10 times in one year, I don't think I ever want to do the same hike 10 times in my lifetime. There's a part of me yearning to do something new, to do something different - I don't think I'm alone in that respect. I assume every person reading this has that desire. There are people who change and people who stay the same. There are people who move and people who don't. We move.

One way that I move is to try to haul my ass out of bed at 6 in the morning on the two days of the week when I don't need to, and walk. As much as my Instagram feed likes to tell me, I don't hike because of some abstract reason - hiking doesn't allow me to solve global problems, it doesn't help me stop hurting, it doesn't make me nicer, and it certainly doesn't make me wiser. I hike because I want to see that view from the top of the mountain, plain and simple. The only thing driving me up a mountain for 5 hours is knowing that I haven't seen it before, it's going to be awesome, and I might be one of the only people of 7 billion to see that view that day. 

Other times I don't even go to bed and drive up a river bed to hike a mountain to get the best view of the northern lights that were supposed to be there.

But I don't just look at a map, pick out a mountain and blindly decide to hike it. I don't drive along the highway, see something I like, and start walking. The inspiration to hike something is hardly original and summit registers constantly remind me that what I've accomplished in a day is hardly unique, and that bugs me. It's difficult for me to separate my desire to do something completely new with the reality that maybe there's nothing out there that hasn't been done yet. There aren't any uncharted seas left to sail. The west was settled before settlers even got to it. If I think there's a single mountain out there that hasn't had one human stand on top of it, I'm seriously delusional.

Mountains are easy though - beautiful and majestic, just jutting up into the sky. They're not hiding from anybody. Surely there's still beauty in nature untouched by the human eye, likely hidden in a forested valley impenetrable by passersby on the highway. It's probably even really difficult to get to: no trail, bushwhacking, dense forest which makes navigation almost impossible, only someone who wants to really wants to get there will succeed. Even better. The only thing I need in excess is motivation. It may not be months out at sea, but this will test me to my limits and the payoff will be worth it.

That scenario gets me stoked. I want to believe that that exists - that unadulterated exploration is within my grasp. Something truly wild I can experience all to myself. Something I can be truly wild in myself. But I've come to two realizations: the first being that as much as I want to believe it exists, it doesn't. 

Even now I'm thinking to myself, there's got to be one hidden lake in Kananaskis that nobody's ever been to. It's so easy to slip back into that ideal but I quickly remind myself that local history did not only start 3 years ago, or even 150 years ago. I'm definitely not a mathematician so somebody can feel free to do the math, but I think it's safe to say that over the last 5000 years, there is no lake in Kananaskis that has never been visited by a human. That realization can get me in a funk. It's amplified when I can't really find anything that I really want to hike on the weekend. It usually starts with reading old trip report websites, and sifting through trail reports is like heading up a steep scree slog - you only do it if you have to.

And even then it's like, "Do I really have to?"

Instagram has played a huge part in inspiring me for my next hike. Like I said earlier, I'm in it for the view. If someone can show me a view so grand that I feel like I'm wasting my life away as every second passes by that I'm not packing up my car to get to the trailhead, you bet your ass that I'm going to take advantage of that. That's my favourite thing about Instagram actually - not just showing people that you can take photos of spectacular things, but that those spectacular things are just waiting for you to see for yourself. Don't live through my photos, live them.

That's not often a popular sentiment among the community though. The idea that something is secret, that something is hidden, that something is so sacred that only the worthy may lay their eyes upon it is held by a shocking number of the Insta-elite. However, they have good intentions - no, they have great intentions. You know the photos I'm talking about - where comments number in the hundreds asking where that spot is and how to get there. And you might also know the responses those comments get as you might have been getting responded to - "Sorry, everyone, this is a secret place that I'm not going to give out right now." It's not that it's secret, it's that they think it needs to be earned. 

An unnamed waterfall doesn't mean it's secret. Hike the Fortress, check this waterfall out.

I don't care what anyone else says, hands down the best view in Kananaskis is from Smutwood Peak. Now imagine the amount of flak I took because I published that adventure on the Outbound and it was featured on their account. How could I let so many people in on the secret? So many people were now interested in the most surreal and breathtaking view I've ever seen, and people in the community were frustrated that the trail would now attract more visitors. It strikes me as odd that the people who think that that beauty should be earned don't count a 20 km round trip as the required payment. I've learned that it's not up to me to decide who gets to be a part of the adventure, but it's up to me to invite as many people as I can to join.

Earlier I mentioned that hiking doesn't do anything for me other than allow me to experience true wonder. It's mostly true. I don't look for John Muir quotes to post with photos, because that's not genuine for me; and I (often) don't post song lyrics that accurately capture how I was feeling during the day; and I don't try to thesaurize my vocabulary to provide insights into human nature because hiking only gives my calves definition, it doesn't give me wisdom. With that said, there's one other thing I get out of hiking: peace. It's not zen by any stretch of the imagination, but there's something about only having to focus on putting one foot in front of the other makes everything else just disappear for a while. That's not an opportunity I wish to take away from anybody.

A good friend once told me, "Every time I see airplanes fly by I think: why would anyone want to be anywhere else, than where I am right now?"

But my second realization parallels the passionate outdoorsperson's intent to keep locations secret. While they've realized that an increase in traffic will affect the trail's and locations integrity and health, I've realized that the only way we can encourage Leave No Trace behaviour is by encouraging people to get outside. I love the #ProtectTheWild initiative the Outbound is running. We acknowledge that there are places that are precious to us, and their fragility causes us to react just like a mother bear would to an intruder. Too often this protection has turned into guarding. 

One of my favourite aspects of Leave No Trace is that it really is a gold standard that we should all hold ourselves to. There are no judgement calls embedded in its principles. Accidentally hopping on a false trail happens to everybody, that doesn't mean it's ok. People with great reverence for the outdoors understand that ecosystems are fragile, but picking one flower won't harm anything - again, experience and respect doesn't make it ok. Fruit peels can fall out of backpacks, even though they're biodegradable, it's not ok. Just because nobody will know you've set up a bivy on a summit without a permit doesn't mean it's ok. It comes down to things as simple as staying on a trail, a rule I'm guilty of breaking just because my head's in the clouds. 

And sometimes literally in the clouds.

While the principles do not allow for any deviation, it's impossible to live by Leave No Trace without acknowledging the inherent forgiveness that's required. We all falter, we all make mistakes, but the thing that makes passionate outdoorspeople special is that we can accept those mistakes and hold ourselves to the higher standard in the future. That's what this takes: taking ourselves off of the pedestal in order to be relatable - that's where teaching moments occur.

My good friend Peter Holt put it very plainly, "there are two types of people - people who bully and people who support." I like to think that everyone has at least one person that they can trace their love and appreciation of nature back to (hi Mom and Dad). Those people supported us when they could have given up. They could've not even made the effort to try to pass their gift on (I was very ungrateful at the time - I was just a child, I didn't care about cactus and it was always too hot to be hiking). But they made the effort, and they're the root of every bit of inspiration we have for the outdoors. Personally, I've made the choice to be exclusive in the past. Now I make the choice to be that bit of inspiration for somebody - to be the support that allows our passion and respect for nature to be passed on.

My good friend Peter Holt is a real person - we met on this mountain as he was breaking the rules. We drank brandy together.

So, I think the age of exploration is over. There's nothing new to do. The good news is that there will always be something new for me to do. And no matter how many people are doing or have done the same thing I'm doing, there will be no other person who lived it the way I did. The view won't be unique, but every pine needle I subconsciously observe, every rock I step on, every creature I see, no one will ever experience it that way again. When I think on that, the quest for a unique adventure is satiated and gives way to my connection to nature in that moment. As much as each individual animal, plant, and stone were a part of that, I was too.

There's no doubt that we need to #ProtectTheWild but the only way to do that is to #ShareTheWild. Naturally, that will lead to #RespectTheWild, and I hope at some point it will end with #BeWild.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.