Bivvy camp at about 19,000 feet on the way up Pinnacle Peak in the Indian Himalaya.

I'm soaring high on mountains and life here in mad, endearing, tastebud-searing India. Just back from the first all-women's expedition to Pinnacle Peak (6955m) in the Indian Himalaya, an adventure that two dear, intrepid pals - Alison Criscitiello and Rebecca Haspel - and I dreamed up in order to follow in the hob-nailed footsteps of Fanny Bullock Workman, an early explorer in these parts.

More substantial update on that epic later, because now it's back to the trail! This time in the Spiti valley, on a trek with Harish Kapadia, Bernadette McDonald, and other literary mountain pilgrims. After the trek we're all heading to the Mussoorie Writers' Festival, October 5-8, which has a "Mountain Literature" theme this year. At the festival, "Distinguished authors and climbers from India, Nepal, U.S.A., U.K., Canada, Australia and other countries will discuss and read from their books, exploring how they transpose high altitude adventures and experiences into words, using language to convey the extreme beauty and challenge of mountains. Over a period of four days, more than twenty-five authors will converge on Mussoorie for readings, panel discussions, workshops and social events. Invitees include noted poets, novelists, filmmakers, travel authors and memoirists, as well as editors and agents."

So if you're in India, come check it out, meet me there! I'll be presenting some new writing about wilderness and mountains that I'm super excited to share. If you can't make it to Mussoorie, I'll also be giving a public lecture at the Himalayan Club in Mumbai on October 10th, part of an entire day of talks by mountain writers. Details here.

For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity I wouldn’t give a fig; for the simplicity that lies the other side of complexity, I’d give my life.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes

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In northern India.

Between ski traversing the Hardangervidda in Norway, squinting at North Korea from the DMZ boundary in South Korea, stalking lions and zebra and elephants (oh my) in Kenya, roadtripping across Canada, hanging out in the wild west with pals, and now mountain adventuring in India, the year 2010 has been a pretty tough go. But hey, somebody has to do it. Many of these adventures will eventually surface in some form of writing, but for now, and in response to emails, I want to comment on the lifestyle of a starving writer/explorer/wilderness pilgrim.

When people discover how I spend my days these days, their reaction is usually something like “you must be filthy rich or crazy.” While I’m often filthy, I’m infinitely remote from rich. For proof consider my steady diet of salsa and peanut butter. Money, at least by my idiosyncratic economics, is worthy of pursuit only to the extent that it enables rich and transformative experience. Anything more – acquiring wealth for the sake of wealth – risks becoming its own form of impoverishment. I admire Thoreau’s system of accounting, which defines the cost of something as the “amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” And as a dear friend pointed out, this doesn’t simply mean the amount of your life, but life in general, and the planet on which all life depends.

So my answer to “how do you afford the adventurous life?” is simply this: I live simply. Rather chaotically, but simply. My life mostly fits into a backpack, with occasional spillover onto bookshelves and bike racks. I’ve pared down my expenses to the point of no rent, no cell phone, no car, and no monthly bills. With an unfaltering appetite for monotonous food, coupled with a fondness for tent living and couch surfing (facilitated by generous friends and family who actually own couches), I manage to squeak by on meager income – and explore the world.

That income mostly comes from the environmental reporting I do for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. As part of this NGO's Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) team, I get launched around the world to cover UN meetings and environmental conferences. Then I extend my work travels into "side trips," which are less tangential tourism and more field research expeditions. These excursions inspire and inform the writing I most love to do, namely the kind that explores the origin and expression of my various astonishments: natural wonders, far-flung facts, poetry written and lived, wildness in all its guises. Or as Annie Dillard puts it, “tales of grandeur, tales of risk.” In short, the kind of writing that guarantees, even in a world where almost nothing is guaranteed, that I will never ever in a million dog years get rich.

But what is richness, if not this abundance of time and space to wander and dream, to read and write? This unstructured but examined life, driven by curiosity and magnetized by mountains and other wildernesses, has provided my most intense schooling. Like Dylan Thomas: "My education was the liberty I had to read indiscriminately, and all the time, with my eyes hanging out." (That said, I owe so much of what I’m doing and who I am now to many years spent in an academic setting, educational opportunities for which I'm inexpressibly grateful. So to all the young kids out there: if you want to see the world, study hearty. It’s your ticket!)

As Ann Lamott frames it, "this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?" In answer I say fiercely alive. It’s a precarious existence, this business of becoming a writer, and by writer I really mean an explorer in the most fundamental sense: one who ventures into unfamiliar territory, whether physical or creative or metaphysical or emotional, and returns to tell the tale. It’s an impecunious existence too, depending on your system of accounting, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But as Evelyn Underhill wrote, “He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.”

Indeed. That said, if anyone out there has leads on potential salsa or peanut butter sponsors, kindly get in touch.

For me it is simply instinct, and perhaps that is all that a person can try to put into each of her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty. -Ellen Meloy

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Kate biking in Nevada on her x-USA trip. Photo by cirquevideo.com.Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.ο»Ώ

Allons! the road is before us!

It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well.       
Allons! be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!    
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!    
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!

-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road



Everyone sings their own song of the open road, especially when it comes to bike travel. Some push pedals to earn an honest appetite, others to sate wanderlust. Some ride bikes to escape, like writer Diana Ackerman, who feels like “the world is breaking someone else’s heart,” rather than hers for once, when she’s off cycling. Others bike in search of the life abundant, like Christopher Morley, who exulted that "the bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets."

Why travel by bike? To whet hunger, to blunt it. To flee life, to find it. Space, time and two wheels transmuted by the alchemy of the open road into — something else, different astonishments, various and singular for each cyclist.

Given these motley reasons for bike travel, the four of us Bicycle Travel Network founders had a heck of a time brainstorming a website/project name to encompass them all. One early idea was “The World Cycling Alliance,” but I protested that this sounded too bland, too corporate, too are-you-with-us-or-against-us — qualities antithetical to the footloose freedom I lived and loved on cycling trips. I ventured “Vagabiking” as an alternative possibility, feeling rather chuffed at my clever play on vagabonding, a name true to the scattershot, wandering side of bike touring. But as the boys pointed out with some glee, Vagabiking sounded like it should be a brand name for female-specific chamois cream. Touché. So we needed something in between — a name that was professional, but not stifling; adventurous, but not anarchic. And above all, not medicinal.

We settled on “The Bicycle Travel Network,” a name to accommodate all breeds of bicycle traveler, from seasoned road warriors who can fix a flat, pitch a tent, and shoo away the dogs filching their pasta simmering on the campstove, all at once, to neophytes oblivious to the fact that wearing underpants beneath bike shorts is an open road leading directly to disaster. I began as the latter breed of cyclist. (Though I’ve since learned my lesson: ditch the underpants, bring the Vagabiking™.) My first bike trip was a coast-to-coast USA traverse that saw me covering more miles on day one than I’d ridden sum total in 23 years of life. I had no idea what I was getting into, just a vague and romantic notion that a bike could take me places otherwise difficult to reach.

For once, a vague and romantic notion of mine found traction in reality. That first day on the road both annihilated and entranced me. With bike travel, you are exposed to the world around you in a way and to a degree that few other modes of transportation afford. That kind of raw vulnerability has its drawbacks — like choking on the fumes of transport trucks that roar past, or feeling every teensy bump in the road translate itself into a saddle sore. But in the end the perks take the prize: the freedom to explore a landscape at your own pace, under your own power, and the exhilaration of traveling with all you need strapped to your wheels. This is nomadism at its best, each day yielding some new acquaintance or adventure, insight or dream, vast horizon or gnarl in the road.

Cruising is never complete without crashing, though, at least not on any bike trip worth its sweat. When I first test rode my touring bike in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I was a college student, I came to a stoplight and forgot to twist my feet out of the clipless pedals. Cue a slow, ponderous, tree-felled-in-forest tumble. Fortunately nothing was bruised but my dignity. Then on the final leg of my cross-country trip from San Francisco to the coast of North Carolina, I passed through that same intersection. In two months, ten states, and nearly four thousand miles of biking, I had crashed a few times, mostly toppled over by the bluster of dogs and sidewinds. But never out of brute incompetence since that intersection in Chapel Hill. As I braked to a stop at the red light, I mused nostalgic over how far I’d come, in every respect, since forgetting to kick out of my pedals right here. And in that self-congratulatory reverie, in the heart of my adopted American hometown with people who knew me on the sidewalks, I forgot to kick out of my pedals. Boom.

Lost in space and wonder, stumbling and soaring, humbled every day anew — this was the state of play on that first cycling trip, and this has remained the state of play on trips since. I wouldn’t want bike travel any other way. As writer Rebecca Solnit put it, “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery." Discovery requires exploration, and exploration demands risk. When I travel by bike, risk means putting my coddled butt, precious dignity and cozy presumptions on the line, the swerving potholed line that is the open road through an uncertain and fantastic world.

As the saying goes in mountain bike racing, and holds for bike touring and life itself: if you’re not crashing once in a while, you’re probably not riding hard enough.

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The Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway.Sometimes you take a trip, and sometimes a trip takes you. Our Hardangervidda expedition in Norway took me skin and blood, sweat and pulse. After 15 days of skiing and camping, my feet were cratered with blisters, my ankles were sore and oozing, my legs were wincing - and I was completely smitten with this trackless land of cold and white. 

"Rapture is the only sensible response," mused Ed Hoagland, "where a clear line of sight remains." Accordingly, we tried to keep lines of sight clear on the plateau. The Hardangervidda didn't always cooperate, of course, but every paradise exacts a penance. In this case: nights of truly terrifying cold, days defined by minus forty winds, feet reduced to raw nubs, food reduced to noodles and liver paste. Bliss, served with a side of blizzard.

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Midnight sun above the clouds on Svalbard
I'm disappearing for a few weeks to ski across the unrelenting cold and white of the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway. Stomping grounds for thousands of reindeer, training grounds for polar explorers like Nansen and Amundsen, this is Europe's largest mountain plateau and danger is quite literally its middle name (mum and dad, if you're reading this, be reassured that "danger" is an ancient Scandinavian word for "smooth and safe travels.")

My pal Riley is flying overseas for the first time in his life to partner with me on this traverse. On a gap year from university, this mountain man was born on skis in the Yukon wilderness and raised on Pilot biscuits smeared with Spam, supplemented when seasonally appropriate with wild salmon and caribou. Apparently his recent solo motorcycling adventure from Alaska to Mexico didn't sate his appetite for the epic or for a steady diet of dubious luncheon meat, so he's coming to Norway, land of stoic explorers and bacon in squeeze tubes. Though we've kept in touch over the years, swapping dreams and poems about wilderness sojourns while school kept us static, I last saw Riley half a decade ago, and he's never seen me with a full set of teeth. But I have no doubt we'll still recognize each other.

Our Norwegian pal Geir, already famous in Canada from previous appearances in feature articles (scroll down to "Trekking Norway's Tundra"), is joining us for a few days until guilt over his Ph.D. submission deadline forces his retreat. Riley and I will continue as a duo and finish the traverse, fickle weather gods and goddesses willing. Apparently Amundsen tried and failed to cross the Hardangervidda three times, each time deterred by horrible storms. He had a better success rate reaching the South Pole. Here's hoping we're luckier with weather on the plateau than our man Roald.

Geir, Riley and I met in 2004 on the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), a two-month glaciology training expedition that involved traversing the Juneau Icefield in Alaska/British Columbia on skis, digging snow pits to measure glacial mass balance along the way when we weren't swimming in supraglacial lakes. Since then I've roped Geir (nicknamed "Manimal" on JIRP for possessing endurance and agility more the proper of a mountain goat than a man) into a number of Norway-based exploits. I simply can't get enough of this country. In the past few years, I have solo hiked in the Tromsø region and explored the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. And together Geir and I have trekked across the mosquito-ridden Finnmarksvidda plateau in Lapland, and skied and camped across the blizzard-stricken Jotunheimen National Park.

It took me weeks to warm up after that last ski trip. But as soon as I thawed, I began dreaming about coming back. Like Nansen, like Amundsen, like Robert Service and so many others before me, I can't resist the call of the wild.


Call of the Wild (Robert Service, 1916)
Riley in Atlin after JIRP.

Have you gazed on naked grandeur
where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert’s little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills,
have you galloped o'er the ranges,Gap-toothed in Alaska.Toothless on JIRP.
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa?
Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild -- it’s calling you.

Have you known the Great White Silence,
not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies).
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? Mushed your huskies up the river?
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is,
can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild -- it’s wanting you.

Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
"Done things" just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendors,Geir the Manimal.
heard the text that nature renders?
(You'll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things --
Then listen to the Wild -- it’s calling you.

They have cradled you in custom,
They have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching --
But can't you hear the Wild? -- it’s calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling... let us go.


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Sunrise on Annapurna, Nepal.
The intrepid adventurer and writer, Alastair Humphreys, recently featured me as a guest blogger on his website. Here's what I wrote.

Imagine, if you will, the cackling hoot of a chimpanzee. This sound is akin to Whitman’s barbaric yawp. It invokes nostalgia for a language subterranean to logic. It recalls a primal, forgotten fluency, a vocabulary vestigial to swingers of trees (one could do worse). And it makes a hell of an impression when bellowed from the unlikely lungs of Dame Jane Goodall.

This is how the grandmotherly conservationist greeted the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. I have heard Goodall’s chimp call before, but the might of her voice and message never fails to inspire. Jane was just one of many luminaries at the Congress, which gathered scientists, artists, government officials, NGOs, and aboriginal chiefs from around the globe. These are the movers and shakers of all things conservation, doing what they can where they can to preserve wildness in the world. And in the process, by Thoreau’s logic, preserve the world itself.

These are my people, a feral folk, happiest beneath a rainforest canopy and most at home on a mountain crag. You don’t go into this line of work for the love of money or fame, or for work trips to Mexico where you discuss all things wild and free from the air-conditioned confines of a convention center. You go into this work because the notion of a planet lacking places to get lost in is quite frankly unbearable.

Not long ago a friend and I went on a night hike in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Just a single ridge separated us from Calgary’s blinking sprawl, yet we roamed a lunar solitude. Wilderness is not a function of distance; you don’t have to go far to find yourself lost. Out there, in the bite of winter, the maze of forest, the glint of moon on glacier, it was like a burr was suddenly plucked from my brain. Months of routine had tangled it in there without me hardly noticing: weekdays sterile with computer screens and laboratory work; weekends dizzy with racing, around and around in circles. The sameness and tameness of my life was its own form of pathology, the sort that ferments beneath night skies always neon with city lights, posturing shamelessly as stars.

I read recently that in 19th century Germany, a child named Caspar Hauser was raised in captivity for seventeen years. His captors then loosed him on the streets carrying nothing more than a cardboard placard scrawled with his name. Caspar was adopted by someone who helped him adapt to the real world, and they reported that the single indignation he held against his captors concerned, of all things, the stars. When Caspar saw the night sky for the first time, saw the infinite scatter of stars he realized everyone else on Earth had been privy to all along, he wept. His captors, he cried, “ought to be locked up for a few days” for denying him this view.

Today the bright lights and expanding bustle of civilized society threaten to make Caspars of us all. Wilderness, wherever it can be found, is powerful consolation. As surely as sunshine and oxygen, we require untrammeled physical and imaginative territory to roam. So we must fight for the holy blackness of the night, possessed of pine, ice and stars. For mountains, perfectly contoured to plug the holes modernity mines in our hearts. For trees to swing from, branches bent from the weight of yawping chimps. It is up to us - you and Jane and me - to chime in and echo that wild chorus.


Alastair also asked me a few questions about heroes, books, life, and adventure:

What expedition or journey or book or person has inspired you the most?
Tough to pick just one, but when pressed I’d say Nansen. This man led the most evolving, exploratory life: from restless scientist and athlete to pioneering Arctic explorer to Nobel Peace Prize winner. Nansen showed that the best way to cross ice caps, on Greenland as in life, is to leave no escape route. His life of adventure and exploration, of unwavering commitment and conscience, is a huge inspiration.

What’s your favourite travel or adventure book?
“Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters” by Annie Dillard. Every sentence Dillard has ever written is worth reading, twice.

What’s your emergency iPod song when the mojo is failing you?
“Surfing on a Rocket” by Air.

What luxury item do you carry on your expeditions?

A motley library of literature, from poetry to history to fiction to science. Though I must confess this library is less a luxury and more a necessity, as vital to my preferred mode of exploring as a tent and my own two feet. Books, whatever their weight, are never a burden.

What do you miss the most when you are away?

The glorious chaos of family dinners on our horse farm in Canada. These typically consist of brothers monkeying around, cats and dogs carousing, pesto on plate, wine in glass, and the Big Chill soundtrack singing on the stereo to the unplugged accompaniment of barking and guffaws, both animal and human. Home sweet home.

What advice do you have for someone contemplating an adventure of their own?
The world is wide, it is wild, and it is rampant with wonder and horror, bedrock and paradox. All these realities are worth confronting. So don’t delay: get out and explore, let adventure test and transform you, and return to share the tale. Both you and the world will be better for it.

 

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When I’m riding my bike along the Silk Road this coming fall, you can bet I won't be stashing cash in my bike handlebars again. Instead, thanks to the Polartec® Challenge Grant, I'll store money in the cozy pockets of Polartec®-equipped gear. My expedition partner Mel and I just recently found out that our upcoming expedition, Cycling Silk, won one of Polartec's 2010 expedition grants.

For years now I've religiously checked up on the winners of these grants, tracked their expeditions from afar, longed to follow in their footsteps or, better yet, pick up where they left off and push on further. Past winners have included Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Steve House, and many more – heroes and pioneers, forces of awe and inspiration. And now we get to join their ranks. Or at least wear the same sweet Polartec clothing.

The only thing I have unwaveringly aspired to be in my life is an explorer. Drawn to distant poles and other planets, adventure and romance, hardship and regions of difficult beauty, I am marked by what writer Ellen Meloy identified in herself as "a rage for wandering." While the great generalists of the Age of Exploration had patrons and kings to fund their expeditions, us modern-day wannabe explorers rely on the generosity and vision of folks like those at Polartec. I can’t thank them enough for supporting us through the Polartec Challenge Grant, and I can’t wait to take Polartec on this harsh and beautiful sojourn down the Silk Road.

You can read the Polartec press release here. We also got some love from Outside magazine here.

Descent on our previous cycling trip in China.

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