The Price of Risk and the Reward of Joy Out in the Wild
On Friday, Jan. 13, the actor Julian Sands set off for a hike up Mount Baldy in California’s San Gabriel Mountains. He had done this kind of thing before: Mountain hiking was his passion. The 10,000-foot Mount Baldy is a difficult climb, but he had seen worse. In the Andes, he and three friends had reportedly been caught at 20,000 feet in a storm so violent, nearby climbers died. “We were lucky,” he later said.
Mr. Sands didn’t make it down from Mount Baldy that day. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department began a ground search, but it has so far come up empty. Looking for missing hikers and climbers is very difficult under the best of conditions, and especially so in winter. Ferocious storms across the western United States have since made the prospects even bleaker.
A friend of Mr. Sands’s recently described him as “an extremely advanced hiker” as well as “very, very fit.” Regardless, plenty of people will think this kind of expedition reckless. They will criticize those who set off in poor weather, in winter, knowing they could come to harm, for underestimating the risk. For going alone. For going anyway.
I am used to people telling me my chosen hobby is risky, even “insane.” I’m not a mountain hiker, like Mr. Sands, but I, too, have devoted myself to a sport I enjoy despite — and to some degree because of — the danger.
My love is fell running. “Fell” is an English term, from the Old Norse “fjall,” a mountain. In the north of England, and especially in Lakeland, the high, sometimes featureless hills are called fells, and the runners who like to run up and down and along them — and the hills of the Peak District and Yorkshire and elsewhere — are fell runners.
There is no direct equivalent of fell running outside Britain. It’s not trail running, since there are few trails, and the terrain is boggier and both softer and tougher than a mountain runner would be used to. There will always be climbs, and there will always be descents that call to the inner child in me, to run down them as fast as I can.
My friends who do not fell run think I’m mad. I don’t agree. I think it is sane to pitch yourself among the wildest nature. I am 53 and having a sometimes difficult menopause: Running through high places on wild moorland is my quickest route to peace of mind.
I defend myself against risk as best I can. I always carry a waterproof jacket and trousers, survival blankets, food and liquid, gloves, a hat, a compass and a whistle. But the most important defense is preparation. Many fell runners frown on GPS guidance, so you learn the route in advance, with a map and a compass. Critics think this policy is purist or old-fashioned, but the guideline is meant to increase the reliance on knowledge over luck, which can so easily fail.
Once, I ran a race up the mighty Yorkshire hill of Ingleborough. It was an out-and-back route. You run up, and then back down the same way. But at the summit, there was thick fog. I strayed slightly off the footpath, looking for a better line over the rocks, and within minutes I could see nothing and hear no one. I was the worst kind of lost: Minutes from the manned checkpoint, minutes from the other runners, I didn’t know where I was or where I had to go.
The flanks of Ingleborough are punctured with potholes and caves, and I could easily fall down one by stepping the wrong way. Was I in danger? Possibly. It was too cold to wait for the fog to lift, and I had no signal with which to call Mountain Rescue. I chose to get off the hill as slowly and carefully as I could, then followed the sun when it appeared. I wasn’t lost anymore.
I tell this story to fell runners to demonstrate how poor I often am at navigation, and to make them laugh: No one gets lost on an out-and-back. But it wasn’t funny, and I will probably always remember it and the speed with which the familiar changed to the bewildering, as fast as a breath.
I’ve asked myself why — hypothetically — I should put pressure on rescuers for something that is a leisure activity. Because I know that in the hills your luck can turn as easily as a bird in the sky. I lessen my guilt by donating to my local branch of Mountain Rescue and by always stopping to help anyone who needs it.
So still I set off into the hills or to the moors, even in poor weather. I do it because there is nothing like it. Mr. Sands once said, “a lot of time people who don’t climb mountains assume it is about this great heroic sprint for the summit. And somehow this great ego-driven ambition. But actually it’s the reverse. It’s about supplication and sacrifice and humility, when you go to these mountains.”
I will not stop running in wild places because, probably like Mr. Sands, and probably like other missing hikers and runners, I have calculated the price of risk — the kind I cannot ward off no matter how prepared I am — against the reward of joy, and I think it worth paying.
Rose George is a British author whose books include “Nine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood.”
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