A few days ago I was exploring some of the exceptional, hidden limestone cliffs we have locally, and following some mountain goat tracks up a scree slope led to option soloing up broken gullies and sticky slabs. While liebacking off crisp solution pockets and smearing floppy shoes up sharp corrugations my mind went backwards. To Paul Preuss, Norman Clyde, Herb and Jan Conn. To ropes that might have broken, slippy ovals without a nose, and pre-War tennis shoes. To pushing on and up towards that intriguing ridge, guided by experience, an eye for a line, and the necessity of being able to downclimb should those first two come up short.
There is an easy distinction between hard and soft skills in the outdoors. Hard skills are doing things: tying knots, pitching shelters, taking a bearing. Soft skills most commonly have to do with group dynamics and communication, but can also pertain to decision making. Taking a bearing has limited utility if one’s group cannot agree on the best route across a valley, as does a well pitched shelter in a poorly chosen location. This is all very well, but from an educational perspective I’ve long thought that a third class of skills underpin both the technical and heuristic, giving them both context and coherence.
It turned out that my line did not go. The progression of ledge and slab ended around the corner in a monolithic line of pockets and implied edges. I’ll return, some day, with the full sack of modernity, most prominently either a traverse in to a toprope anchor, or bolts. Or maybe doubles of microcams and pink tricams, triples of small wires, helmet, and healthy fear. Messner’s murder of the impossible has long since come to pass, with technology and the mindset of 30 years ago requiring a significant leap of imagination to consider the virtues of rock climbing as a pursuit where turnkey safety is not always an option. The ubiquity and quality of gear has made safety an objective attribute, not entirely on or off, but often quite close to black and white. As I turned to find a way down it did occur that a rope would have been expedient. But in the manner of Preuss, for whom even rappelling was cheating, I poked over a series of ledges, downclimbed a tree, scratched across a hanging dirt slope, and jammed down a clean, overhanging corner to the scree slopes, creek bottom, and then the road. For that hour in the vertical safety was under my feet, and between by eyes and the surface. Can that smear hold my weight? Will that flake come loose? Can I reserve the next 5 moves, if the five after prove too much?
It is easy to view the safety brought on my kinaesthetic awareness, training, and judgment as part of the mechanical skills of climbing, outgrowth of hard skills and sibling to tying a clove hitch or placing a Stopper in an offset crack. In this account the physical side of not falling is heads to the tails of a sound rope and protection network. With climbing as the ultimate control sport, an activity in which the brakes are by default stomped to the floor, it is an easy assumption to make. Whitewater boating is in many ways the opposite of climbing, where flow and the speed and rhythm imposed from without are the default. Safety in whitewater has to do with instinct and preemption coming together and thus knowing when to stop, and when to let go. Scouting, setting safety, and portaging can make running a rapid as painstaking and calculated as a 5 hour trad lead, and in either case the structural elements are a best set on a shaky foundation if judgement, self-knowledge, and process, what I think of as the basal outdoor skills, are not solid.
The other week, on Big Creek, we portaged a solid stretch of the crux, a decision which revolved around two burly ledge holes set 20 yards apart. I had little faith, maybe 10%, in my ability to hit either and not flip. I had a bit more belief in my ability to hit the precise lines through each feature, and make a big ferry between them. There were big features both above and below, making the run in complex and the consequences of a swim significant. I knew my skills, knew I was tired, and knew that I had doubt. Hard skills were the past decade of paddling, reading water, practicing rescue techniques. Soft skills were Will and I being honest with each other about our risk assessment. The basal skills were even more invisible; me calling what part of my fear had to do with performance anxiety, and what part had to do with accumulated fatigue and the doubt over when my clouded mind would enable me to pick good lines in a timely manner. On my scrambling excursion, hard skills were the past 27 (!) years of off and on rock climbing, especially having previously done moves of a vastly greater physical difficulty. Soft skills were route finding, looking at the cliff and reading which ledges linked weaknesses, and which ran out in blank slabs. The basal skills were internal; what percentage of past and current skill was available to me in each moment, how much of my desire to find the ridgetop was tempered by a realistic assessment of reversability?
Writ large, basal outdoor skills have to do with self awareness, and in adjusting goals and decision making day to day and hour to hour to keep them in tune with capacity. This is how risk is managed on the ground and in the moment, be it the choice to run a rapid, ski a slope, or push forward with an extra 8 miles of postholing at the end of long day. In a mundane but more pervasive and significant way, basal outdoor skills maintain the integrity of your backcountry functioning by saving mistakes. Loosing gear, either by letting it fall out of a pocket or by leaving it behind at stops, is shockingly common, and in the case of something like a water bottle, knife, or a good chunk of your remaining food can be significantly debilitating. Proper nutrition and hydration is both a hard and a soft skill, but the consistent and correct application is just as significant as what you packed, and a basal skill to the core in that constant adjustment to the demands of the moment is success itself.
So too with packing, unpacking, and transitions generally. Efficiency here can save significant time in the moment, and far more time later in the ripple effect of being able to find gear easily, not forgetting anything, and having the correct items at hand for the tasks of the day. Each transition during the Salmon River I was somewhere between 30 to 50% faster than Will and Robert. Part of this was hard skill, experience, having done boat to hike and boat to camp transitions many times more than either of them (Robert, in fairness, was on his first multiday trip out of his kayak). But I think the majority was basal skill, in that I’ve cultivated and practiced highly purposive transitions for a long time. It is one thing to quickly and skillfully pack a pack with the same gear you’ve taken on similar trips for years. It is another to adapt principal to a new range of items and have a coherent enough rig from day one. In the case of the Salmon trip, I had never put so much inside my packraft on a previous trip, but on the first day I had the right stuff out of the boat for the day of paddling, and had the stuff inside secured and balanced enough that portages and self-rescuing after a swim both went without abnormal difficulty.
I don’t think many adventurers get far into backcountry pursuits without becoming acquainted with the importance of self-management and execution. I do think many people, even those with considerable experience, consistently mistake both the inherent subjectivity of these skills and more importantly, the exacting moment-to-moment control that dependence on internal processes can provide. It’s an amorphous thing to grasp, and not something concretely taught, but recognition of basal skills as an independent class which control the application of hard and soft skills will provide more consistent backcountry performance, and thus, safety.