Home is many things. A rancher in the ‘burbs; a two-storey “Vancouver special;” a 500-sq-ft bachelor pad in a downtown high-rise; an acreage in the country with just enough square-footage to fill several lifetimes of half-baked DIY property improvement projects. Oxford’s concise dictionary defines home prosaically as “dwelling-place; fixed residence of family or household.”
But it’s much more than that; home is where we relax, create family, work and foster connections with community. And it is also a nostalgic repository of memories and dreams. Like many people, I spend an inordinate amount of time creating a comfortable home, yet as the great Irish playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw once said, “Home life is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo.” I can relate. Occasionally I feel an incorrigible desire to abandon home, stow the essentials in a backpack and leave in a sort of rootless self-imposed exile that is the existential equivalent of a meandering Miles Davis trumpet solo. Or at least that’s my ideal.
Six days into a ferocious storm blowing in from the Gulf of Alaska and assailing our base camp on the Grand Plateau Glacier, I clung to this wandering ideal. Home, for me and my tent mates Steve Ogle and Dean Wagner, had been reduced to 30-or-so-square-feet of rip-stop nylon. In the eyes of some observers without the same self-absorbed preoccupation with adventure, I had abandoned my wife and my two-year-old daughter at a most inopportune time when the latter was afflicted with a nasty spring cold and the former was swamped with work, just so I could make an attempt on Mount Fairweather (perhaps the most inappropriately named mountain in the world), situated in the northwest corner of BC. I fidgeted in my down sleeping bag, counting the patterned rectangles in the tent fabric above my head, pondering all the projects I could be doing back home, taking out my notepad and making fastidious lists — broken fence, gutters, promising to notice when the toilet bowls need scrubbing — then crossing off items one-by-one as ridiculously unachievable for a guy who will conjure up myriad excuses to avoid home projects. I obsessed over the gruesome plot twists of the poorly chosen novel that I brought, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; an apocalyptic tome that did little to lift my spirits.
On my right, Wagner had slipped into a state of hibernation, slumbering throughout the endlessly long days. Ogle, on my left, seemed equally comfortable with sustained stormbound inactivity. Together those two had previously weathered out severe storms, most notably during a wind- and snow-ravaged traverse of the Darwin Range in Patagonia. Their ability to cope with the psychological torment of our restricted tent-bound domestic circumstances when, perpetually tethered to our sleeping bags except for nature calls, one day became indistinguishable from the next only seemed to amplify my own torment. It took me the better part of a week but eventually the battle between a busy brain cluttered with longing, guilt and restlessness, and a physically inactive body approaching torpor, subsided. I grew more comfortable with our home and concentrated more on what it afforded us — relative comfort and warmth — rather than what it deprived us of. We weren’t going to die and I would see my wife and kid again. I began to forget about the ceaseless flow of electronic communication that is the distracting bane of a writer’s existence, about the emails from editors that languished in my inbox offering sweet assignments in the South Pacific. Instead I would lie for hours, comfortable with my thoughts, pondering the beautiful mountain above us and its unusual climbing history. Like, for example, the earthquake and ensuing tsunami that nearly engulfed Paddy Sherman and his team of climbers back in 1958 as they awaited a plane pick-up in Lituya Bay after completing the first Canadian ascent of Fairweather (only an extremely fortuitous twist of fate in the form of a pilot’s last minute change of flight dates had spared them certain death).
I thought of another experience I had years ago when I tangled with the unexpected privations of wilderness. I was part of a four-person team climbing Mount Aberdeen in the Lake Louise region. One of the members of the party was (emphasis on the word “was”) my friend’s girlfriend. He talked her into coming along, and only when we began ascending the steep tongue of blue ice at the foot of Aberdeen Glacier did it become immediately apparent that this significant other, to remain unnamed, was extremely uncomfortable with exposure of any kind — rock, snow or ice. Needless to say the trip was a relationship-killer and what should have been an enjoyable late summer, 12-hour car-to-car day in the mountains evolved into a mini epic. As we kicked the last few snow steps to the Aberdeen-Hado Col the inevitability of a forced night out in the mountains sunk in and I slowly surrendered to this unwelcome reality. We had no artificial shelter or any sort. I didn’t even have down jacket (lesson learned). But we were lucky in many ways. It was a stunning crystalline cloudless night, no wind — but cold. My home-away-from-home was a rocky ledge, the mountains, the night sky. I was reduced to spooning another man out of a non-homoerotic necessity to keep warm. I didn’t sleep for more than a few consecutive minutes, at best, and for the first time in my life I watched the sun vanish below the horizon as evening drained away and then observed the moon’s entire transit of the sky from dusk until dawn when the warming sun finally returned after 12 long hours of shivering.
The point is: nobody in their right mind volunteers to be tent-bound in a lashing storm for 10 days straight as Ogle, Wagner and I were on Fairweather. Nor would they cheerfully enlist to spend a night at 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains with neither tent nor sleeping bag, let alone a puffy. Many a time I have returned from such trips to friends and family members who look at me quizzically as if to say “Why the hell would you bother?” Indeed to try and justify putting oneself in such positions of discomfort almost seems ludicrous from the luxury of a La-Z-Boy. Yet if we obsessed over every possible unexpected scenario, every remote contingency, we’d never leave the comforts of our manufactured homes. There is the obvious benefit of temporarily abandoning home; only by leaving it can we truly appreciate the beauty, warmth and comfort of something so easily taken for granted as the place where you hang up your gear to dry after a trip and snuggle up on the couch with your kid, wife, lover, whatever, to watch a movie. But for me, packing what you need on your back and striking out taps a primal need for the simplicity of adventure, of entering new environments that are as beautiful as they are impartial and unforgiving. To carve out a home on a vast snowfield or a crude rocky ledge on a wind-buffed mountain pass far from the hum of wi-fi is as close to sublime as I have ever come. I will always love to return home, but if I was never to leave I would suffocate.
This article originally appeared in our Spring 2013 issue.