By Michael Polletta
Stop searching for comfort and security
“Isn’t that what that guy in Utah was doing when he had to cut his arm off?” my coworker asked after I explained what I did during our four days off. My coworkers and I had recently watched the movie 127 Hours, which recounts Aron Ralston’s hair-raising nightmare in Bluejohn Canyon near the Horseshoe Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park. Ralston’s arm got pinned by a massive boulder in a freak accident, forcing him to eventually amputate his own decaying arm with a dull, bacteria infested pocket knife. I had spent the past few days alone in search of the most remote places in Arches National Park, including spending half of my last day doing some canyoneering in the maze-like labyrinth called the Fiery Furnace. The past several months have been among the most difficult of my life, and I was starving for some time to get away from society. I was in desperate need of filling my hunger for some kind of normalcy and a little sense of control. So I did what any normal person would do and went off-roading into the remote backcountry in Arches…alone…for three days.
I was about an hour away from where Ralston’s life changed forever. Ralston is a highly experienced mountaineer and outdoors person, and we share some similarities. He’s from Aspen, and I spent four years of college in the Gunnison/Crested Butte area, which is about 30 miles away as the crow flies. We both spent years in the unforgiving mountains that separate the two iconic mountain towns. We both also spent several years on Mountain Rescue Association certified mountain rescue teams. We are both confident in our skills and seemingly share a desire to spend time alone in some of the most wild places on the planet.
Utah’s wilderness is not for the timid though, and there’s a palpable sense of change when your body traverses the state line from Colorado. There is the sudden reality that you are now in a much more desolate place, yet you feel more at ease. The deeper you go the more human you feel. Traffic vanishes, the landscape sprawls out before you, and you start to reflect on whether life really would’ve been more difficult when the West was truly wild.
Winter brings out the best of the Arches. The summer vacationers are still at home prepping their RVs for their upcoming spring break road trips, so it’s the time of year when you can find solitude almost anywhere in the park. This was more than just a getaway though; I had a mission. I was here to photograph several of the most remote arches and landmarks in the park. I was here to test my budding photography skills in preparation for an upcoming trip to Death Valley, where I plan on photographing some of the more remote landscapes within the hottest place in the country.
Unfortunately, Ralston did not tell any of his friends or family where he was going. He did, however, bring every ounce of drive and determination with him. It was this determination, drive, experience, and grace that spared his life. Fortunately for me, I have a Bivystick to provide another measure of security and self-sufficiency during my trips. It’s a revolutionary tool that helps bring some peace of mind to the loved ones you leave behind at home.
National Park visitors rarely explore beyond the overlooks and major trailheads, and this is evident at Arches. The park has become so inundated with selfie-seeking tourists during the summer that they are proposing a plan to implement a reservation system for entry into the park. Parking lots are overflowing with vehicles and traffic is getting backed up out to the main road into Moab. So, what’s the solution?
I finally watched the nerve-racking thriller of a documentary Free Solo, which chronicles Alex Honnold’s journey to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite. At one point Honnold explains “no one has ever done anything great by seeking comfort and happiness” (paraphrased). Honnold has arguably performed the greatest athletic/physical feat in human history by climbing the most grandiose rock climbing route in the world, which towers high above Yosemite Valley…without a rope. So how can we apply this incredible man’s thought process to our lives and to our National Parks? Well, stop trying to be comfortable.
The only way to get over your fear or get past the things that make you uncomfortable is to face them. Honnold had spent years preparing for this historic feat, and spent days on end working through the toughest parts of the climb (roped up) until he knew every move of the route. He became so comfortable with the climb he no longer had a fear of it. It was no longer uncomfortable for him to think about climbing this monumental route without a rope.
Make a pledge to yourself to start going to National Parks during the off-season. Challenge yourself to visit them when the weather isn’t at its finest. Challenge yourself to visit areas of the park that aren’t the typical tourist traps. Spend some time planning your itinerary well beforehand. Scour over topo maps and look for a place to venture out to that’s probably outside your comfort zone. You’ll also need to spend some time making sure you’re well prepared to take care of yourself in these places. Make sure you have a pack with the 10 essentials and know how to use these life-saving items. Make sure you tell someone where you’re going. Lastly, you can further decrease your level of fear by buying a Bivystick, which will give you the ability to send S.O.S messages and text messages via a network of 60 satellites.
So stop waiting for the dog days of summer to visit National Parks. Venture out into these wild, beautiful places when they’re covered in puffy, billowy, blankets of snow, and see what great things you can accomplish by not seeking comfort and security.