Exploration

Pushing the Limits

If you think about it, the soul of adventure is about stepping out of your comfort zone and into new territory. Here, 7 writers recount tales of adversity that explore why we test ourselves outdoors.
By Multiple Authors
19 min readPublished on
Scrapping the Plan - illustration
© DAVID DORAN

Scrapping the Plan

By Dave Howard
Halfway through the apocalyptic jumble of rocks that shape the Mahoosuc Notch, I paused on a ledge to catch my breath. I was contemplating an American Ninja Warrior lunge onto a granite shelf cantilevered at an awkward angle. Somewhere further ahead was my 15-year-old son, Vaughn. On day two of our four-day Appalachian Trail backpacking trip in Maine, we
hit a section widely celebrated as the AT’s hardest mile. Picture an alley wedged between two mountains packed with giant boulders and slabs—a stone labyrinth so intricate that you have to crawl over, around and even under the morass of granite. This mile takes some hikers three hours to clear. “Some of the transitions,” one online guide says, “are high consequence if you fall the wrong way.” Now I understood.
As I prepared to leap, Vaughn appeared around a boulder, circling back to check on my progress. This is how we roll on the trail: I never quite feel my age until I see him disappear up ahead of me, only to be relaxing at some overlook when I finally huff up behind him. This time, I was extra aware of my pokey pace, because we were falling behind on the itinerary I’d planned.
“Hey dude!” I called out. “Are we having fun here?” I wasn’t positive.
“Yeah!” he said. “This is crazy!”
Once again, I’d overestimated how much ground we could realistically cover. Perhaps I was bummed that Vaughn was growing up so fast, trying to jam as much into what was left of his childhood as possible. Time felt short. So I was trying to calculate how fast we’d reach New Hampshire.
The trail had other ideas. This section has pitches so steep that iron rungs have been installed to save backpackers from having to mimic Tommy Caldwell on El Cap. The previous day, we’d pushed through the long haul up Old Speck Mountain. We’d figured the hard part was over but then had been slowed by an afternoon thunderstorm on a harrowing descent. Wary of going through the notch with slippery surfaces, we ended our day two miles short of our goal. As AT thru-hikers put it: “No rain, no pain, no Maine.”
And so there we were, the clock ticking loudly in my head. After we slithered through a few more bends in the notch, we plunked down on a flat slab, shrugged off our packs and opened our bottles.
I was doomscrolling the topo map when Vaughn—aware that our water supply was running pretty low—spotted a half-frozen pool lurking beneath the rocks. We hauled out the filter and gulped greedily. It was frigid and bracing, and we held the bag up to the sky and marveled at its utter clarity. “This,” Vaughn proclaimed, “is the best water I’ve ever had.”
It was. We sat for a while, quietly. The sun slipped in and I reclined, less concerned now about how far we’d go that day. It suddenly was impossible to ignore the fact that we were spending a precious day in a beautifully remote place. There would be more missteps and detours. That— more than any artificial target I’d set for us—was the point. What would happen wouldn’t be something that we planned, it would be something that we did.
Mark Jenkins on hiking through Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains.
Mark Jenkins on hiking through Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains.

A Bad Idea

By Mark Jenkins
The pack horses carrying our climbing gear were named Trump and Pence, foreshadowing the endgame of our mission. I wasn’t sure our wrangler, a grizzled cowboy who once rode from Kansas to Wyoming, meant the names as a compliment.
“Depends on whether you think horses have any brains,” he said enigmatically.
Four of us—my wife, Martha, and I; Oliver and his wife, Kelly—were hiking up to Lake Elsa, deep in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. It’s Martha’s favorite place on the planet, an alpine tarn at the base of sharp granite spires. Our goal: a first ascent of a remote tower. Oliver and I had been putting up first ascents every summer for decades. Martha and Kelly, both experienced climbers, were intrigued. Oliver and I talked up a beautiful unclimbed peak we’d found on Google Earth.
At the lake, our camp stove wouldn’t start. I took it apart with confidence, thought I’d found the problem, reassembled it, lit the burner—and the stove blew up. My down jacket ablaze, Martha scooped water from the lake and put me out. Singed the eyebrows and eyelashes right off my face.
The next morning, we hopped talus by headlamp, reaching the base of our unclimbed tower by dawn. After the first pitch, Oliver and I knew something that Google Earth hadn’t disclosed: The rock was utterly rotten. We had to move cautiously so that tombstone-size slabs didn’t rain down on our spouses.
At the first belay, both women expressed suspicion. “This seems a little sketchy,” said Martha.
“I agree,” added Kelly. “The rock is pure choss.”
But Oliver and I convinced them to carry on for the prized first ascent. They unwisely deferred to our dubious alpine experience. The rock got worse as we climbed. Fearful they might never join us on another adventure, Oliver and I insisted that this was all normal—while whispering to each other that the rock was the worst we’d ever seen. Oliver and I were used to pushing the limits in climbing, but here we were mostly pushing the limits of marriage.
We never climbed directly above our wives but rather off to the side, so that when we pulled off blocks, they tumbled clear. Martha and Kelly huddled beneath overhangs, recounting misadventures with their overenthusiastic husbands.
At the fourth belay, Martha said the sparks from the tumbling blocks smelled like gunpowder.
Kelly pressed us: “Is this really good alpine climbing?”
Dodging the question, Oliver insisted that the best way off was to go up.
“We’re only one pitch from the top,” I said. “Just one pitch from the glory of a first ascent!”
That pitch was the worst. Martha kicked off a stone pillar bigger than she is.
Though the summit was so sharp only one of us could stand on top at a time, we’d done it—a first ascent! But before we started down, I saw a rats’ nest of weathered slings tied around a boulder. For a moment, Oliver and I hoped they wouldn’t spot it.
“What the hell!” exclaimed Martha, pointing to proof of prior ascents.
Luckily, Martha and Kelly just laughed it off. That night at camp, they came up with the name for our route: Chicks on Choss. “A climb totally not recommended.”
Evelyn Spence bikes the Gooseberry Mesa mountains.
Evelyn Spence bikes the Gooseberry Mesa mountains.

Getting Up After Getting Over Your Head

By Evelyn Spence
The first time I tried mountain biking, with the twisted confidence of youth, I chose Gooseberry Mesa for my inaugural mission—Gooseberry, known for its technical Greater Zion slickrock, death-drop vistas and painted white dots that guide expert riders through bristly manzanita. I pedaled for less than a minute before hitting a nub of sandstone and wrecking hard enough to crack my rental helmet and shred my right elbow.
In my shame and pissiness, I didn’t ride a mountain bike again for 10 years. Then selective amnesia set in. I decided to join a multiday, all-women’s downhill MTB clinic led by endurance beast Rebecca Rusch. My glorious comeback was slated to culminate with a descent of Oregon’s Mount Ashland Super D, a course that drops 5,400 feet over 14 miles, known for its steep straightlines, berms and rock gardens.
It was an honest mistake: I’ve been known to take up outdoor epics and pull them off (finishing a three-pitch route at Lover’s Leap my first day climbing; tele-skiing Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole). I figured I could do the same in Ashland—sandbag a bit, do the self-deprecation song and dance, nail it. So I showed up wearing Lycra (first blooper). I borrowed clipless shoes from Rusch and got ready to descend some basic singletrack with a half-dozen women with decades of collective downhill experience. I pedaled for 20 seconds before hitting a modest root, grabbing my front brake (second blooper) and flying ass over handlebars with the bike attached to me.
I untangled myself from the frame as everyone hovered over me. “Damn, girl!” someone said, pointing to my thigh, where a 6-inch hematoma was blooming. The experienced women gave me passionate hugs. Their expressions of awe seemed to me—with a nostril full of dirt and a chainring imprinted on my glute—like pity. “Do you want to call it a day?” Rusch asked. To be honest, I did. It was another first: I was over my head. I’ve rarely been the absolute worst at anything, so I wanted to bolt. More embarrassing? The female support was so genuine that I felt suffocated, which felt ugly and petulant.
But I was too humiliated to quit. Someone left to find flat pedals, and I made it back to the van with near- constant dabbing and fear. The next day I woke up with a lump in my throat, and I didn’t care whether it was pride or nerves—I swallowed it. I was the last one down every section, always met with a chorus of “you GO girl!” as I pulled up. They practiced tricky features; I walked them. They leaned into the berms; I dragged my feet. But with each vertical foot I dropped, I grew more confident— in my slowly increasing abilities on the bike, sure, but also in my ability to recognize my limits.
Near the end of the clinic, I decided to go for it: I rode the entire Super D. I fell. I fell again. I cried. The experienced women finished in 45 minutes; I took two-plus hours. But there was no one around, no one to support me but myself. Sometimes, a tiny crisis and a tiny triumph can feel as valuable as bigger, brasher accomplishments. It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty tough.

Reclaiming Adventure as a Mom

By Heather Balogh Rochfort
A small drop of blood trickled down my thigh, and the redness seeped through my trekking pants like a macabre Rorschach test. I unclipped the waist belt of the culprit—the new kid carrier holding our 8-month-old daughter—and evaluated the raw massacre of my hip bones. Frustrated with impossibility, I heaved the backpack onto the ground and threw my broken body on top of the nearest rock. The tears flowed instantly. I can’t do this.
Two hours into a five-day backpacking trip through California’s Ansel Adams Wilderness and I was giving up. Before we became parents, my husband and I did this stuff all the time. Backcountry skiing in Colorado. 100-mile packrafting expeditions in Alaska. Ultramarathons in Arizona. We never met a Type 2 adventure we didn’t like, and our relationship was deeply rooted in outdoor extremes.
Then we became a family of three, ushering in a new world alongside our baby. Immediately I realized nothing would be the same. Her birth went sideways, resulting in an emergency C-section where I was put under with general anesthesia and completely missed the whole thing. I struggled with low milk supply and finally was dealt the ultimate blow: During my first postpartum backcountry skiing adventure, I obliterated my ACL. After a multihour extraction, I remember riding out in the sled wondering which hurt worse: my knee or my pride.
Pre-kid, my body was my champion. But postpartum, I felt like I was living inside an unknown entity that repeatedly failed me. Thankfully, my husband had a generous paternity policy, so we concocted a plan: a three-month road trip through the American West before
I went under the knife for my knee. We’d camp the entire time and teach our daughter how to live her life outside.
We tackled our first overnight backpacking trip in Sedona and when that went well moved on to Ansel Adams. But as I wallowed on the rock, despondency reappeared. Could our new life ever look like our old one?
“Babe, this is too hard,” I confessed to my husband, who was patiently setting down his own monstrous backpack.
“Give yourself five minutes,” he calmly responded. “Then we can turn around if you want.”
The seconds ticked by in silence, interrupted only by the wind rustling through the coniferous forest and the occasional sound of my sniffles. I didn’t want to disappoint my husband and I knew he wanted to continue; so did I. This hurt in a way that I didn’t understand, though. My body felt softer and weaker. I felt incapable of enduring.
But as the thought danced around the fringes of my mind, our daughter giggled. I lifted my head to see her watching a butterfly flapping around the sunshade of her carrier, and it hit me: What was motherhood if not an endurance sport?
What was parenting if not a daily challenge to savor the peaks and persist through the valleys?
I dusted off my bloodied pants and pushed myself back to standing. Words weren’t needed; my husband was immediately at my side, helping me shoulder the kid carrier once more. As I cinched the waist belt, I could practically feel the weight leaving my body.
Adventuring would never be the same, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t sweeter.
Writer Megan Michelson on surviving the Mount Tam 50K trail-running race.
Writer Megan Michelson on surviving the Mount Tam 50K trail-running race.

Surviving Very Long Run

By Megan Michelson
If the torn hamstring wasn’t a sign, the torn hamstring wasn’t a sign, then the raging wildfire inching closer to my house surely was. This run just wasn’t meant to be. I should give up now, I thought, and take up Pilates.
My friends Kathleen, Amelia and I were training for our first 50K trail- running race. The three of us had become running buddies through the pandemic as a safe way to interact with others. On a whim, we’d signed up for the Mount Tam 50K, held in early November. The race would start at the beach and climb 6,800 vertical feet through staircases and switchbacks above the Pacific Ocean, crisscrossing California’s Mount Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco.
But then wildfires halted our training for weeks. It was late summer 2021, and the devastating Dixie Fire was burning hundreds of thousands of acres across Northern California, turning our air quality into a smoldering ashtray. When the Caldor Fire broke out south of Lake Tahoe, near where I live, prompting evacuations for thousands of residents, I thought, OK, that’s it. I can’t even breathe outside, let alone run. The race is another pandemic casualty, I figured, one more thing I’d have to cancel.
Running 31 miles isn’t something I particularly wanted to do. (Does any sane person want to rise before dawn and run hills for five hours straight?) But it’s something I wanted to know if I could do. I like running—it clears my head— but I’d never run close to this far before.
With the fires eventually contained and the air quality stable, we had no excuse not to get back into running. (Silver lining: The pause in training let my hamstring heal.) By November, I was as ready as I was going to be. At the starting line, runners with hydration vests looked way more serious than me, and I felt jittery with nerves. But I had my friends there, and we resolved to start out slow, enjoy the ocean views and try not to whine. Finishing with dignity was the end goal.
A few hours later, I found myself slogging up a climb known as Cardiac Hill. I felt surprisingly upbeat, invigorated by the scenery and the strength of my lungs at sea level. I passed a defeated- looking woman who was walking slowly. “You got this!” I cheered her on as I ambled by. She glared at me silently. On the final downhill toward the finish, I felt that euphoric yet exhausted high you get when you realize you’re almost done with something challenging and there’s a burrito waiting at the finish line.
Then the woman I’d passed earlier flew by me on the final mile, looking shockingly fresh. “I ate Oreos at the last aid station!” she hollered on her way by, as if that explained her renewed energy, while I felt like a grubby mess. We all have our moments, I guess.
When it was over, Amelia, Kathleen and I peeled off our dusty shoes and plunged into the Pacific Ocean. It felt like I was washing away hours of sweat, months of hard training and years of hesitation, of wondering what my mind and body could truly handle. Turns out we’re all tougher than we think. We just need to light a fire within.
Tracy Ross on backcountry skiing on Berthoud Pass.
Tracy Ross on backcountry skiing on Berthoud Pass.

Earning a Scar

By Tracy Ross
It’s easy to find things to dislike about your body when you hit middle age, but the scar that arcs across my cheek isn’t one of them.
Twenty years ago, I was new to Colorado—and to backcountry skiing. Not far from home stood Berthoud Pass, a mecca of deep, steep skiing for those brave enough—and in love enough with the sport—to don climbing skins and trudge uphill for hours to turn around and lap blankets of untouched powder.
There’s no way around it. In order to make tracks at high speed in such places, where there are serious avalanche risks and all kinds of other objective hazards, you have to be an expert skier.
I was not yet one back then. I was just starving for adventure. I was also fleeing a crap relationship and seeking cooler friends. I had recently moved from Alaska, where I’d had a cabin, ran a dog team and climbed peaks flanking Denali. But I wanted more—acceptance in what I thought was the most exciting, beautiful, soulful outdoor community.
What I didn’t know on the day I ripped my cheek was that I probably already had it. I already had avalanche skills, all the right equipment and a burning desire to haul my body to places few others could get to. I was one of five other women who were skiing Berthoud Pass that day, and probably all of us felt like we had something to prove.
That kind of self-imposed pressure usually made me ski better. But, still new to powder, trees, steeps—and powder in trees on steeps—I tended to flounder. I just happened to drop into the exact same line as my friend Thom, a Rastafarian ripper with dreads down to his back. As we both made arcing, opposite-direction turns that brought us directly toward each other, I cut my arc short and skied directly into a tree.
I’ve hit trees at higher speeds since then, resulting in some relatively bad injuries (cuts, gouges, a tibia fracture, vertigo that lingers), but none have earned me as much love as that crash did. I slid into it at slow speed, so I was only snagged by branches. I didn’t feel the one that bit me. Powered by adrenaline, I started thrashing to untangle myself. And I did, unaware that blood from the branch bite was seeping down my cheek.
I don’t remember it hurting, only laughing when I caught up with Thom and my new boyfriend (now husband), Shawn. That must have made them think there was no alarm, because neither acknowledged the blood. We skied to the shuttle stop. And when I boarded the bus, full of the Colorado shredder dudes I feared and admired, they saw my badass backcountry injury—and instead of expressing any worry, their faces broke into broad, admiring smiles. Then they started clapping.
Shawn smiled, too, when he finally took note of it. He removed some gauze from his pack and placed pressure on the cut. Eventually it stopped bleeding. But by then it had won me a spot in the community I cherished.
I’ve been a skier ever since. And although I’ve gotten better at not hurting myself, I wear my scar around with pride. Because it reminds me of the best ski day of my life.

Getting Arrested

By Bill McKibben
In a long lifetime of climbing high mountains, skiing long races and exploring truly wild places, I think the scariest thing I’ve ever done might have involved sitting still—pointedly not moving—on a sidewalk in the middle of Washington, D.C.
It was late summer of 2011, near the start of what would turn into a decade-long fight against the Keystone Pipeline. Because President Obama had the power to shut down this environmentally ruinous project, I’d written a letter urging others to join me outside the White House; we planned to stay on the sidewalk until we were arrested. It sounds straightforward, and in a way it was. But as the sergeant with the bullhorn gave us our final warning, I found myself struggling to keep cool.
I had three sizable fears. What would happen that day? (I’d never been to jail.) What would it do to my life going forward—would I ever be able to get a job again? And was it really OK to be doing this? (I’d grown up white, in the suburbs—if police told you to do something, you obeyed.)
When they put the handcuffs on and slung me in the back of the police van, I relaxed a little—there was nothing more I could do. For the next few days in D.C.’s Central Cell Block I had less autonomy than I’d ever had. I obviously couldn’t go anywhere—that’s the point of jail. Eventually, on day three, we were chained at the ankles and walked to the courthouse. I had to put my hand on the shoulder of the guy in front; my chainmate explained he was there on an attempted-murder rap and was both amused and outraged to find that I was charged with “Failure to Yield.”
“Shit,” he said. “That’s not even a misdemeanor—that’s a traffic.”
As he predicted, we were soon released, but not before our arrests had spurred many more to join the sit-in— within two weeks, it had become the largest civil disobedience action about anything in the U.S. for some time. And, ultimately, a successful one, building support for a fight that became one of Big Oil’s first big defeats. So, very much worth three days in jail (even though, when you think about, it’s absurd that anyone has to go to jail to get our leaders to pay attention to basic science).
I’ve been arrested maybe 10 times since then—we’ve won some of these other fights and lost some, and some are still pending. It’s not the only tool in the activist tool kit, and you don’t want to overuse it, because like any tool it can get dull. But there are moments when it’s the right way to underline the moral urgency of an issue, a signal to people looking on from the sidelines that this matters enough that people will do something hard.
Here’s how I’d say it: The planet is miles outside its comfort zone. That’s what a melting Arctic means, or a bleaching Great Barrier Reef, or a drying Amazon or a burning California. So sometimes we’d better get outside ours.