It is with mixed emotions that I write this overdue post. A message last week from a friend and Classic veteran prompted me to finally finish what I have attempted to write a number of times. Anticipation of a new Wilderness Classic this summer is building but the Classic community is still grieving over the loss of Rob Kehrer during the 2014 event.
Classic participants have always known that this is an event not to be taken lightly and that the consequences could be fatal. There have always been dangerous situations that even obsessive training and planning can’t control. Severe weather, unpredictable water and wild animals are objective variables that are impossible to predict.
Reciting the dangers of the Classic does not make Rob’s passing any easier. Rob was popular, friendly and his passion for the Classic was unequaled. Rob’s respect and love for the Alaska wilderness permeated his life. He was a Classic veteran and was simply the victim of one of the uncontrollable dangers of wilderness travel. His was the first death during the 32 year history of the event. We all knew it could happen. We also all hoped it never would.
This is why the event has always been word-of-mouth and why applications are scrutinized carefully. You must have not only the physical experience but also demonstrate an appreciation of your insignificance in some of the wildest places on the planet. Humility not bravado is key. You will never conquer the wilderness. However, you may sometimes pass through it if you have properly prepared.
People who have not run a Classic may incorrectly assume that the attraction of the event is the danger. The hazards of the Alaskan wilderness are undeniably a part but play only a minor role. Completing a Classic is not the same as the head-rush of cheating death on a free-solo rock climb or skimming inches from a sheer rock wall in a wingsuit. The distinction may seem trivial to arm-chair observers but motivation of the spirit is key to understanding why so many are attracted to the event.
The allure surpasses mere endorphins. Be assured, there is no adrenaline rush 110 miles and four days into an event when you discover that a miscalculation on your creased and dirty map led you five miles off-route up a box canyon.
The Classic is analogous to a vision quest. It is a modern continuation of the ancient practice in many cultures of communing with fundamental life forces to gain insight into your own life. Most participants are hungry, cold, miserable and exhausted when they finish. They swear they will never do it again. However, the clarity gained by participating in the Classic is magnetic.
Sleep deprivation, exhaustion and unplanned suffering must all be expected when starting a Classic. These factors can lead to clarity but can also lead to miscalculations. As Classic participants, we must carefully balance the joy of traveling quickly over vast distances with the dangers faced in the wilderness. Consider also loved ones at home who are concerned for your safety, who do not fully understand your drive to do this event and the devastation in their lives for many years if you do not return. It is possible to give safety a priority and not diminish the experience. Please remember that the edge is closer than you think.
Although there was discussion in the Classic community of cancelling this year’s event out of respect for Rob, everyone agreed that Rob would urge this year’s event to be held. So, yes, there is going to be a 2015 Wilderness Classic. In the middle of your Classic this year, pause for a moment and remember Rob. Build a small cairn at a natural cross-roads on a bear trail. Listen to Rob’s footsteps behind you as you hike from dusk into darkness. Hear his laugh as you huddle over a small campfire to keep from freezing.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.