I first met Luc Mehl way back in August of 2010, when I was living in Missoula, Luc came down to visit his brother, and thanks to the wonders of the ‘net and friends of friends we met up with Forrest McCarthy and packrafted the Selway.
I was nervous because I’d owned a packraft for all of 2.5 months at that point, but other than that it was a pretty routine excursion. Luc, as vaguely seen in this photo was running a very overstuffed OR compression sack backpack which truly was a glorified grocery bag. I didn’t pause to think of how, crap strapped to the outside not withstanding, it was an absurdly small bag for a packrafting trip. When we stopped for the evening after walking all day, having found Moose Creek far too low for boating, I finally began to understand the Luc was/is not normal.
Forrest had a Golite Shangrila 3, and both Forrest and I had conventional sleeping pads and bags. Luc had a torso sized foam mat, light puffy jacket and pants, and raingear. He said he’d sleep by the fire, which seemed like a ridiculous choice even before it started to rain and got dark. I did little more than shake my head, say “whatever dude” and go to bed.
It’s apparently been Luc’s m.o. for a while to assume that anything south of Alaska is, outside winter, so warm by comparison that he doesn’t need a sleeping bag. Mid-summer in the Bob this makes sense, and Luc’s done some big hiking and packrafting traverses there before the golden age of Alpacka came upon us, the details of which are apparently so insignificant Luc can’t recall things like which rivers he actually floated. Late summer on the Selway it got pretty cold, but Luc seemed to have slept well, and out paddled me easily the next day. Going without a sleeping bag during the summer Classic is of course routine, though reportedly the approach worked less well in Mexico, especially sleeping at 15,000 feet.
The point is not that Luc is a masochist, which may partly be true, but that he’s managed to cultivate a particularly refined sense of what is a physical necessity insofar as his performance out in the wilderness is concerned, and what is merely for psychological support. For most of us most of the time this isn’t a distinction we can see well, if at all, and no matter how sanguine you might be it’s likely always a factor. But as Luc said repeatedly at his talk Wednesday night, the value of wilderness travel in demanding circumstances is that it strips away the secondary fears which are usually all that is available to look at.
The primary fears which lie at that core of your decision-making are almost always more complex and subjective than the secondary fears which are most often discussed. Will I get lost/run out of food/be eaten by a bear/not make it through the snow? becomes with greater insight Will I get more cold/tired/stressed than I’ve been before and am confident of managing based on past precedent? This is not to deny that objective hazards like avalanches, rapids, and cliffs don’t pose real dangers, but it is to assert that safety has relatively little to do with on-the-ground reality and almost everything to do with having the mental resources to put forth your best abilities in the moment.
This is why I bailed on the Wilderness Classic back in 2012, because I was scared enough that I knew I’d fuck up (more than I already had). I had the skills and gear, but not the head. Maybe I do today, but I’ll have to go back to find out.
When I arrived at Luc’s house for the 2011 Classic he was in the midst of recovering from his Denali Traverse, had just created his website, and was editing the Denali video, learning Final Cut in the process. Buying that fat Canon DSLR was a massively influential purchase, because it made what Luc knows accessible. The success of his films in the last three years has not been a surprise, and has been a pleasure to observe.
What Luc knows is that adventure begins and ends in the mind. He also knows that we’re capable of drastically more adventurous things than we usually assume, even after quite a lot of time spent out there. His example, and especially the sensitive and non-self-aggrandizing way he tells his stories, have been hugely influential for me. It’s not going to be easy to be like Luc, but he makes it plain that with the requisite dedication and bravery you could.
I’d not seen Luc speaking with a capitol P until a few days ago, and was not surprised that he did exceedingly well. He has fantastic photos and video, and as mentioned above a great way of telling us about them, to say nothing of a story very much worth telling. He framed the journey of Wilderness Classics to Denali to Logan to now in terms of Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow; that an ideal wilderness trip takes a space somewhere along the line between control and flow, with occasional sojourns into arousal. This is a moving target as skill (and one’s ability to consistently operate closer to the actual ceiling thereof) is constantly changing. Optimizing reward on and of a trip is tied up in two parallel processes, maximizing flow by matching terrain (challenge) to skill, and best understanding as exactly as possible where your control/flow boundary lies. Do these things and you’ll have a lot of fun, in the deeper sense.
The alternate, simultaneous function of introspection here is to better understand your flow/arousal and arousal/anxiety boundaries. Luc touched on this, which is the issue of safety and risk assessment. Taking for granted, as I think it’s easy and proper to do, that dying out in the woods “doing what you loved” is not desirable, balancing risk and reward becomes a major part of the conversation. Csikszentmihalyi tells us we can’t have true satisfaction without risk, and while I think that skill is a more complex phenomenon in application than is usually admitted, that we flirt with death when we go after reward is inarguable.
Luc concluded that one answer is to ratchet back the risk-reward edge once you’ve gotten close to it. He had an intense summer in 2012, with getting caught in an avalanche on Logan and an extraordinary performance in the Classic crammed into a six week stretch. His trips since have been at least as visionary, his videos at least as poignant, but the level of intensity and exposure to consequence quite a bit lower. After you’ve been out in the wilderness for long enough, and accumulated a sufficient body of experience, you’ll naturally be drawn to new terrain, and to old terrain in new seasons and conditions. The temptation to be able to go anywhere in almost any circumstance is tempting, the possibility of an ever fully dialogue with the earth compelling, but there may be some places and some situations which are just too much. Where and what are these? No answer will ever be definitive. Keep thinking, and keep watching Luc, and you’ll keep learning.