A celebration of the mountaineers, watermen, arctic explorers, activists, and artists who redefine the limits of what’s humanly possible.
Doug Tompkins (1943–2015)
Shane McConkey (1969–2009)
Dean Potter (1972–2015)
J. Michael Fay
Alex Lowe (1958–1999)
Tim Hetherington (1970–2011)
by Holly Graubins, Trail Runner Magazine
Race director Megan Finnesy, 47, of Durango, Colorado, is equal parts benevolent and bodacious. She spent three long years working toward an event permit for an ultra trail race in the rugged San Juan Mountains. Through her perseverance, she finally received the permit for the Double Dirty 30 in Silverton, Colorado, held last September. While working through copious race details with forest rangers, she also dreamed of raising money for her favorite non-profit organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Southwest Colorado.
Her leap to race directing was premeditated. “I wanted to be an event coordinator, but couldn’t find a job because I didn’t have any experience,” she recalls. But her love of mountainous singletrack and knack for juggling miniscule details guided her.
Now, she’s the director of the popular Dirty 30 (50K and 12-miler) in Golden, Colorado, currently in its eighth year. The Dirty 30 is known for long, steep climbs, fast descents and rocky scrambles, and features special awards (“Bloodiest Finisher”) and live music at the finish line.
“I love this race. The course is brutal, but it’s also gorgeous and super well marked,” says Boulder athlete Sarah Black, a 2015 finisher. “[Megan] is wonderfully organized and that is reflected in the event, with its great support, and wonderful volunteers.”
Finnesy attributes much of her life path to her college friend Dale Garland, the long-time race director of the legendary Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run. Back in 2008, Finnesy managed Hardrock’s Cunningham aid station, and has since paced runners, captained other aid stations and once even donned a coconut bikini top and floral lei at the Chapman aid station to boost the morale of spaghetti-legged runners.
“Dale has been my main mentor as a race director,” says Finnesy. “I admire and respect him, as managing Hardrock is epic.”
“When I first got into this run-organizing thing, I relied on Merilee O’Neal [the former RD at Leadville] to mentor me,” says Garland. “So I look at it as paying it forward when Megan asks for advice or help. Now, Megan is one of the most energetic and conscientious young RDs we have in our sport.”
Boulder-born and raised, Finnesy had a soulful connection to nature from a young age, climbing 13,916-foot Mount Meeker at age 12. In the ensuing years, her diverse outdoor interests included running for hours in the Colorado mountains. In 2008 she tackled Colorado’s multi-day, point-to-point Trans Rockies Race, which ignited her ultrarunning passion. Trim and muscular with blonde hair styled into a tidy ponytail, she has blue eyes that twinkle behind dainty eyeglasses, giving her a scholarly yet athletic look.
It’s not just miles and race logistics that Finnesy pursues. “Giving back to our communities is essential,” she says. She once mentored a young girl from BBBS, and fondly remembers taking her “little” up Engineer Mountain, “a very technical trail most adults won’t tackle.”
Double Dirty 30 runners are asked to either do trail work on the course or fund raise for BBBS. In this year’s inaugural race, 33 runners raised a combined $13,000 for the organization. Says Anita Carpenter, the executive director of BBBS, “All of the funds raised have gone directly into one-to-one mentoring. BBBS is serving a new elementary school this year and that’s thanks to Megan’s runners.”
A mix of emotions swirl inside of me. It is strange to think of how I was out enjoying my day, while in the exact same context a tragedy was simultaneously unfolding.
by Joe Grant, Special to irunfar.com
A couple of days prior to the March Equinox, I set off from the Longs Peak trailhead around mid-morning, hoping to summit the mountain before the official end of winter. The weather is exceptionally mild for the season, and other than the calendar stating it as such, you would have a hard time believing it is still winter.
Jogging up through the woods, the snow is mushy, making it hard to find a good rhythm. Every so often I punch through the packed surface up to my knees, leaning heavily on my poles so as to not fall over. I roll up my tights, and am down to a t-shirt under my windbreaker, yet still sweating profusely.
Source: Give And Take
by Jen Murphy, The Wall Street Journal
Skiing up a mountain might seem … counterintuitive. But people always on the lookout for a new fitness challenge may want to skip the ski lift and earn their downhill run by “skinning” uphill first.
Kaitlyn Archambault was introduced to ski mountaineering, also known as “skimo,” when she moved to Crested Butte, Colo., last year. It involves skiing both downhill and uphill. Skiers attach a pair of fabric strips called skins to the bottoms of their skis for traction on the trip up.
“People talked about going skinning like they were going to spin class,” says Ms. Archambault, a 32-year-old paralegal at Huckstep Law, LLC. “It’s a very foreign concept if you don’t live in a mountain town.”
Ms. Archambault is a longtime downhill skier, and after attending a ski-mountaineering camp, she decided to train for the Gore-Tex Grand Traverse. The ski-mountaineering race takes place March 25 and 26, starting at midnight in Crested Butte. The 40-mile traverse with 7,800 feet of vertical gain reaches its finish in Aspen. It requires at least 10 hours of uphill and downhill motion and is done in teams of two. “My boyfriend bravely signed on with me,” she says.
Ms. Archambault used to be a runner but suffered iliotibial (IT) band pain after she ran a marathon in 2011. “Ski mountaineering gives me the same cardio rush as running, but it’s lower impact,” she says. Being in the back country—on unpatrolled, ungroomed terrain—surrounded by nature, away from the crowds, is what appeals to her most.
“It’s very meditative to be outside in the fresh air taking in unbelievable views,” she says. Recently, she says, she and her boyfriend, Zach Guy, director of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, were out for eight hours. “It’s the best thing in the world to be in the wilderness, powering yourself across the mountain.”
Ms. Archambault says major components of ski mountaineering are learning the basics of back country avalanche safety, as well as how to layer and fuel properly. The transition from uphill to downhill takes practice. “Some people can just kick a foot up, rip the skin off the bottom of their skis and then be zooming downhill,” she says. “When I need to put my skins on or off, I use it as a chance to catch my breath.”
Training has given her extra incentive to get in a workout during the winter months, Ms. Archambault says. “When you leave work at 5 and it’s dark out, all you want to do is go home. But once I get up on the mountain under the stars with my headlamp, I completely decompress. It’s a great way to end the day.”
Ms. Archambault skins two to three evenings during the week. After work, she usually heads to Crested Butte Mountain Resort and aims to go uphill for 45 to 60 minutes before skiing down. “The slopes are groomed and safe,” she says. “I go up with a headlamp. It’s cold, but once you get moving it’s invigorating.” On weekends she goes for longer back country tours, anywhere from four to eight hours, with Mr. Guy.
Ms. Archambault on the downhill portion of a workout. When she does training intervals on the uphill, she says, ‘it’s like hell for me, like an hour-long, redlining, anaerobic nightmare. But I go into a different mind-set and push myself harder.’ PHOTO: TRENT BONA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Some days she brings her dog and skins up a trail through the woods on Snodgrass Mountain. On many Tuesday nights, she meets a group of women who do an uphill interval workout on skis. “It’s like hell for me, like an hour-long, redlining, anaerobic nightmare,” Ms. Archambault says. “But I go into a different mind-set and push myself harder.”
Two mornings a week she rides 45 minutes on a bike trainer, and once a week she pops in a yoga DVD. “I’m not good at stretching, but my body feels the difference and thanks me when I do yoga,” she says.
Gear & Cost
Ms. Archambault says ski mountaineering isn’t a cheap sport to get into. Alpine touring skis can range from $600 to $1,300 and tech bindings cost between $300 and $800. She uses Lightweight La Sportiva RSR carbon skis with low-tech ATK Bindings. She looks for deals on a gear-swap Facebook page. Skins range from $100 to $250, and poles from $75 to $200. She says superlight race Alpine touring boots can cost up to $2,000, but you can find them on Craigslist for $400.
“If I was paying $200 a month for a gym membership, it would probably cost more in the long run,” she says. “This is, for the most part, a one-time investment on the main gear.”
She wears a Lululemon Swiftly Tech long-sleeve base layer, which retails for $68. “I generally pooh-pooh spending a lot of money on a shirt, but staying warm is worth the extra cost,” she says. On top of that she wears a Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody, which costs $149. Her Aether Apparel ski pants retail for $375, and her shell, $695. She usually wears two buffs, one around her neck and another as a headband/ear cover.
Ms. Archambault tries to make scrambled eggs for breakfast but often runs out the door with peanut butter on toast. She packs a salad topped with cottage cheese, apples, pears and feta or goat cheese for lunch, and keeps nuts at her desk for snacking. She always has piece of dark chocolate in the afternoon. Dinner is salmon with couscous and broccoli, or a curry over quinoa. Her boyfriend, races mountain bikes in the summer. “He has an incentive to eat well, and that rubs off on me,” she says. Her ski pack is full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Honey Stinger energy chews, trail mix with extra M&Ms, a thermos of tea and another with soup. “After a long day out on the mountain, all I crave is a good beer,” she says.
“When I skin at night, I love the silence and solitude,” she says. If she skins during the day, or rides the bike trainer, the songs that get her going include “Next Episode” by Dr. Dre, “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn and “Dangerous” by the Ying Yang Twins. “If one of those three songs comes on I get a second wind,” she says.
Write to Jen Murphy at email@example.com
“nonwhite campers now comprise 26% of all campers — more than double when it was first measured in 2012”
by Kari Paul, MarketWatch
Teshale Nuer, a 25-year-old Afro-Latinx behavioral therapist based in New York City, recently headed into the great outdoors for the first time, joining a group of predominantly white friends in tents in Maryland. For Nuer, who was initially resistant to joining, it was one of the most foreign experiences in recent memory.
“Growing up as a person of color, camping just never seemed like an option,” Nuer said. “There was a lot of etiquette I didn’t know about. I grew up in the suburbs where people did go camping, but not people who looked like me.”
Camping has been traditionally associated with white Americans — national parks were once segregated and even recently advocates of outdoor leisure activities have asked why America’s national parks are so white. Nuer said there are a number of underlying implications for nonwhite Americans regarding outdoor activities, including the U.S. legacy of racial violence leaving campers uncomfortable around police and state park rangers.
But the activity is increasingly becoming an attractive form of vacation for campers like Nuer, according to a new study from the large national private campground system Kampgrounds of America. It found nonwhite campers now comprise 26% of all campers — more than double when it was first measured in 2012.
The biggest driver of this growth is millennials, said Toby O’Rourke, chief operating officer at KOA, which obviously has a vested interest in people going camping. The age group comprises just 31% of the adult population, yet accounts for 38% of campers — and it’s more diverse: Six in 10 nonwhite campers are millennials compared with 4 in 10 white campers.
“Nature has a PR problem.”
Rue Mapp, founder of OutdoorAfro
“I was surprised by the high enthusiasm for camping in the teenage group,” O’Rourke said. “We are definitely seeing more and more young people coming in. It’s changing the face of camping. It used to be an older, more Caucasian activity and we are seeing it skew younger and a lot more diversity.”
Rue Mapp is the chief executive officer and founder of OutdoorAfro, a nonprofit that “celebrates and inspires African-American connections to nature.” It started as a blog in 2009 and has since grown into a national network in which 20,000 people participate in camping trips and other events across 30 states. She said millennials are seeing the effects of major efforts to show better representation of nonwhite campers in their communities, on social media and in advertising.
“Nature has a PR problem,” she said. “We have not done a good job of letting people know they will be welcome. There is no padlock on any trail, there is no padlock on any campground — but if you don’t know about it, you won’t go. Social media has played a huge role in changing that.”
“All I ever wanted to do was grow a beard, brew beer, and have fun. Maybe that’s why I live in a van.” -Jeremy Tofte, co-founder of Jackson Hole’s Melvin Brewing
by Hudson Lindenberger, Men’s Journal
Two decades ago Tofte arrived in Jackson Hole with a few bucks in his pocket and the goal to spend the winter snowboarding the famous slopes surrounding the town. To survive he bounced from job to job before opening his own Thai restaurant in 2000. The fact that he really did not know much about cooking Thai food did not stop him; he bought a few cookbooks and taught himself.
Six years later, he sold the restaurant. It was a success but he had grown tired of fighting the local government over his attempts to open a nano-brewery in the back of his restaurant. “I was sick of not being able to get good beer in town. We had to drive to Colorado to restock the fridge,” says Tofte.
With the proceeds from his sale, he took to the road spending the next two years chasing surf and summer in New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia. When the new owners of his restaurant failed, leaving the business shuttered, the landlord called him and asked him if he would want to come back to reopen it.
Determined to open his brewery this time, he went over the town of Jackson Hole’s head — he got federal and state approval before applying. When he reopened Thai Me Up as a brewery and restaurant in 2009, he had a tiny 20-gallon system installed.
“The craft beer movement was slower arriving to Jackson, most of the locals thought we were nuts,” says Tofte. “But I did not care, I knew our brews were good.” Three years later, in their first Great American Beer Festival, they won three medals, then another three years later in 2015 they were named the best Small Brewer in the country at the GABF. Investors offered money and they started to plan on opening a larger brewery. Their Melvin IPA and 2×4 Double IPA are recognized as some of the top beers in the country.
But right as things were getting good, Tofte decided it was time for a change. “The real estate market in Jackson sucks. It’s so damn expensive,” says Tofte. “So I decided to stop renting and move into a bus.” As the face of an expanding Melvin Brewing, his constant presence on the road helped to seal the deal for him.
His first mobile home was a converted ski patrol bus. It was good, but also a pain to drive around, and guzzled gas. In February of 2016, he moved into his newest home, a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van. The 4×4 van is part adventure platform, part office, part base camp, and pure party.
There are surfboards on the roof rack next to an array of solar panels, and the Thule lockbox holds his snowboards. Under the raised bed inside are his three bikes — mountain, road, and city — and the rack on the rear holds his KTM motorcycle for commuting into town. Inside he has a full kitchen, flat screen TV, PlayStation, thumping sound system, and enough beer to be the most popular guy at the campground.
“I wake up and make some breakfast, log on using a jet pack, knock out some work before heading out for some fun,” says Tofte. “We only sell our beer in places where you can either mountain bike, surf, or snowboard, so I am never far from another adventure.”
For almost thirty months straight he has been continuously cycling between Wyoming, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. He says he would not change a thing; he loves being on the road. “Every single day I meet new people and have new experiences. Why change that?” says Tofte. “We are all going to die one day, that’s a fact. We should have fun, be nice, and live our adventures.”
Melvin beer will soon be arriving in California, with plans to head east sometime soon.
Access Fund, the national advocacy organization that protects America’s climbing, is honored to present its 2016 Sharp End Awards to an amazing group of volunteers and activists who stand out in their commitment to the American climbing community. Please join us in congratulating:
Menocal Lifetime Achievement Award
Access Fund is honored to present Greg Barnes with a Menocal Lifetime Achievement Award. Greg’s singular focus on fixed anchor education and replacement has made our climbing areas safer and more sustainable. Greg is the longtime director of the American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA), a national organization that has provided—at no cost—new bolts and hardware to hundreds of local climbing organizations and volunteers across the country. Greg developed some of the first and most enduring best practices for rebolting and fixed anchors and continues to be a leader in the field, presenting at Access Fund’s Future of Fixed Anchors conferences and serving on our Anchor Replacement Fund grant committee. Greg has personally replaced many thousands of bolts in California, Nevada, and beyond.
Bebie Leadership Award
Access Fund is proud to present Ian Caldwell with a Bebie Leadership Award for his incredible dedication to Smith Rock, one of America’s most iconic climbing areas. Ian has played a central role in the Smith Rock Group since 2003, coordinating the annual Spring Thing climbing stewardship event, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Ian also replaces bolts and anchors at Smith and volunteers for the Deschutes County rescue team. Decades ago, Ian was an Access Fund Regional Coordinator and served as president of the Madrone Wall Preservation Committee. Ian has also worked to protect climbing areas across the Northwest and played a lead role in the 2016 Northwest Sustainable Climbing Conference. Congratulations, Ian, and thank you for your outstanding leadership.
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is pleased to present Roger Briggs with a Sharp End Award for his work to protect Colorado’s Front Range climbing areas. Roger founded the Boulder Climbing Community organization in 2012 and spearheaded the Front Range Climbing Stewards, a locally based climbing access trail crew, in partnership with Access Fund. A Boulder original, Roger has dedicated his life to climbing in the Front Range, working tirelessly to promote stewardship and responsible use.
The Keithley Family
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is excited to present the Keithley family with a Sharp End Award for their outstanding commitment to climbing area stewardship. Jimmy, Melissa, Zoe, and Noah bring a level of enthusiasm and commitment to climbing area stewardship that is impossible to overlook. As parents, Jimmy and Melissa strive to instill a strong stewardship ethic in their children, combining fun family climbing trips with stewardship work at the climbing areas they visit. Zoe and Noah now provide a positive example to their peers of what it means to be a climbing steward. Jimmy is also a board member of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and chair of the Wasatch Anchor Replacement Committee. Thank you, Keithley family, for making climbing stewardship a family value!
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is honored to present Eve Tallman with a Sharp End Award for her decades of work with Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition (WCCC) and her instrumental role in protecting Unaweep Canyon. In 2008, Eve helped secure Upper Mother’s Buttress, and in 2014, she expanded climbing access by securing the threatened Lower Mother’s Buttress and Television Wall. Without her behind-the-scenes organizing, grant applications, and on-the-ground stewardship, WCCC and Access Fund would not be able to celebrate a long legacy of conservation and climbing access in Unaweep Canyon. Thank you, Eve, for your contributions to Western Colorado and beyond.
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is honored to present Chris Irwin with a Sharp End Award for his deep commitment to stewarding and protecting Mid-Atlantic climbing areas. Longtime board member and current president of Mid-Atlantic Climbers (MAC), Chris has been instrumental to MAC’s stewardship projects at areas like Great Falls, Carderock, Shenendoah, Coopersrock, Northwest Branch, and many more. More recently, Chris worked with Access Fund and other MAC board directors to officially open Mount Catoctin to bouldering.
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is proud to present Ben Bruestle with a Sharp End Award for his leadership of Southern Colorado Climbing Resource and Advocacy Group (SoCo CRAG) and his work to preserve and protect climbing areas in Southern Colorado. Ben has been instrumental in orchestrating Adopt a Crag stewardship events and climbing days at multiple sites, making strong inroads with a host of local land managers. Ben also dedicates countless hours to replacing worn, aging anchors and bolts in the Wet Mountains.
Roger Van Damme
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is proud to present Roger Van Damme with a Sharp End Award for his outstanding leadership as Chairman of the Friends of Muir Valley. Roger has carried on Rick and Liz Weber’s vision for stewardship and conservation of the Muir Valley climbing area in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky. Roger grew and strengthened the Friends of Muir Valley organization so significantly that the Webers decided to transfer Muir Valley to the organization in March 2015. This was a milestone in Red River Gorge climbing conservation. Roger improved day-to-day management at Muir, hiring support staff and instituting a successful parking donation system. With sincerity, humor, and an incredible work ethic, Roger inspires hundreds of Muir Valley stewards and volunteers.
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is honored to present Gus Fontenot with a Sharp End Award for his decades of service to Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC). An Alabama attorney, Gus has provided hundreds of hours of legal service to support SCC’s work in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. He has played a critical role in all of SCC’s climbing area acquisition projects, and he organized the SCC Land Trust. Climbers can enjoy areas like Boat Rock, Steele, King’s Bluff, Hospital Boulders, Castle Rock, Jamestown, Denny Cove, and more thanks to Gus’ generous contributions.
Sharp End Award
Access Fund is proud to present Jack Santo with a Sharp End Award for his leadership of Ohio Climbers Coalition (OCC). Jack founded OCC and immediately set in motion advocacy and stewardship campaigns for Ohio climbing areas like Cleveland Metro Parks and Cuyahoga. Over the past year, he has spearheaded a partnership with county parks to open Mad River Gorge, Ohio’s largest climbing area. Jack is planning a large-scale Adopt a Crag event this May in preparation for the Gorge’s grand opening. Jack recently relocated to the Pacific Northwest but is staying deeply involved with OCC.
Sharp End Award
We are proud to present Outdoor Research (OR) with a Sharp End Award for its long-standing support and dedication to the protection of America’s climbing areas. OR’s leadership in helping launch the Climbing Conservation Loan Program in 2009 was a pivotal moment in the history of climbing conservation, making possible the purchase of 24 climbing areas. Outdoor Research also collects pro-purchase donations to support the protection of America’s climbing resources and has recently stepped up to defend our public lands.
About Access Fund
Access Fund is the national advocacy organization that keeps climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment. Founded in 1991, Access Fund supports and represents millions of climbers nationwide in all forms of climbing: rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, and bouldering. Six core programs support the mission on national and local levels: climbing management policy, stewardship and conservation, local support and mobilization, land acquisition and protection, risk management and landowner support, and education. For more information, visit www.accessfund.org.
There have been hermits – also known as recluses, monks, misanthropes, ascetics, anchorites, swamis – at all times in recorded history, across all cultures. But there are really only three general reasons why people leave the world.
by Michael Finkel, for The Guardian
Christopher Knight was only 20 years old when he walked away from society, not to be seen again for more than a quarter of a century. He had been working for less than a year installing home and vehicle alarm systems near Boston, Massachusetts, when abruptly, without giving notice to his boss, he quit his job. He never even returned his tools. He cashed his final pay cheque and left town.
Knight did not tell anyone where he was going. “I had no one to tell,” he says. “I didn’t have any friends. I had no interest in my co-workers.” He drove down the east coast of America, eating fast food and staying in cheap motels – “the cheapest I could find”. He travelled for days, alone, until he found himself deep into Florida, sticking mostly to major roads, watching the world go by.
Eventually, he turned around and headed north. He listened to the radio. Ronald Reagan was president; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had just occurred. Driving through Georgia and the Carolinas and Virginia, blessed with invincibility of youth, buzzed by “the pleasure of driving”, he sensed an idea growing into a realisation, then solidifying into resolve.
All his life, he had been comfortable being alone. Interacting with others was so often frustrating. Every meeting with another person seemed like a collision.
He drove north to Maine, where he had grown up. There aren’t many roads in the centre of the state, and he chose the one that went right by his family’s house. “I think it was just to have one last look around, to say goodbye,” he said. He didn’t stop. The last time he saw his family home was through the windscreen of his car.
He kept going, “up and up and up”. Soon he reached the shore of Moosehead Lake, the largest in Maine, and the point where the state begins to get truly remote. “I drove until I was nearly out of gas. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that.” He went as far into the wilderness as his vehicle could take him.
Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away.
Why would a 20-year-old man abruptly abandon the world? The act had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself. “To the rest of the world, I ceased to exist,” said Knight. Following his disappearance, Knight’s family must have suffered; they had no idea what had happened to him, and couldn’t completely accept the idea that he might be dead.
His final gesture, leaving his keys in the car, was particularly strange. Knight was raised with a keen appreciation of the value of money, and the car was the most expensive item he had ever purchased. Why not hold on to the keys as a safety net? What if he didn’t like camping out?
“The car was of no use to me. It had just about zero gas and I was miles and miles from any gas station,” he said. As far as anyone knows, the car is still there, half-swallowed by the forest. Knight said that he didn’t really know why he left. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. “It’s a mystery,” he declared.
There have been hermits – also known as recluses, monks, misanthropes, ascetics, anchorites, swamis – at all times in recorded history, across all cultures. But there are really only three general reasons why people leave the world.
Most do so for religious purposes, to forge a closer bond with a higher power. Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha all spent significant time alone before introducing a new religion to the world. In Hindu philosophy, everyone ideally matures into a kind of hermit, and today at least four million people live as wandering holy men in India, surviving off the charity of strangers, having renounced all familial and material attachments.
Other hermits opt out of civilisation because of a hatred of what the world has become – too much war, or environmental destruction, or crime, or consumerism. The first great literary work about solitude, the Tao Te Ching, was written in China in the sixth century BC by a hermit named Laozi, who was protesting the corrupt state of society. The Tao Te Ching says that it is only through retreat rather than pursuit, through inaction rather than action, that we acquire wisdom.
Christopher Knight: inside the Maine hermit’s lair
The final category includes those who wish to be alone for reasons of artistic freedom, scientific insight or deeper self-understanding. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond in Massachusetts to journey within, to explore “the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being”. English historian Edward Gibbon said that “solitude was the school for genius”.
Knight fit into none of these categories – he did not follow any formal religion; he was not protesting modern society; he produced no artwork or philosophical treatise. He never took a photograph or wrote a sentence; not a single person knew where he was. His back was fully turned to the world. There was no clear reason for what he chose to do. Something he couldn’t quite pinpoint had tugged him away from the world with the persistence of gravity. He was one of the longest‑enduring solitaries in history, and among the most fervent as well. Christopher Knight was a true hermit.
“I can’t explain my actions,” he said. “I had no plans when I left, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I just did it.”
Knight’s goal was to get lost. Not just lost to the rest of the world but actually lost in the woods by himself. He carried only rudimentary camping supplies, a few articles of clothing and a little food. “I had what I had,” he said, “and nothing more.”
It is not easy to get truly lost. Anyone with basic outdoor skills generally knows which way they are heading. The sun burns west across the sky, and from there it is natural to set the other directions. Knight knew that he was heading south. He said that he didn’t make a conscious decision to do so. Instead, he felt pulled in that direction, like a homing pigeon. “There was no depth or substance to the idea. It was at the instinctual level. It’s instinct among animals to return to home territory, and my home ground, where I was born and raised, was that way.”
Maine is partitioned into a series of long north-south valleys, the geologic clawmark left by glaciers surging and retreating. Separating the valleys are strings of mountains, now weather-worn and bald-topped like old men. The valley floors at the time of year when Knight arrived were a summer soup of ponds and wetlands and bogs.
A television found at Christopher Knight’s camp. Photograph: Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
“I kept largely to the ridges,” Knight said, “and sometimes crossed swamps going from one ridge to another.” He worked his way along crumbled slopes and muddy wetlands. “Soon I lost track of where I was. I didn’t care.” He would camp in one spot for a week or so, then head south yet again. “I kept going,” he said. “I was content in the choice I had made.”
Content except for one thing: food. Knight was hungry, and he really didn’t know how he would feed himself. His departure from the outside world was a confounding mix of incredible commitment and complete lack of forethought – not all that strange for a 20-year-old. It was as if he went camping for the weekend and then didn’t come home for a quarter of a century. He was an able hunter and angler, but he took neither a gun nor a rod with him. Still, he didn’t want to die, at least not then. Knight’s idea was to forage. The wilds of Maine are monumentally broad, though not generous. There are no fruit trees. Berries sometimes have a weekend-long season. Without hunting or trapping or fishing, a person is going to starve.
Knight worked his way south, eating very little, until paved roads appeared. He found a road-killed partridge, but did not possess a stove or a way to easily start a fire, so he ate it raw. Neither a tasty meal nor a hearty one, and a good way to get sick. He passed houses with gardens, but was raised with rigid morals and a great deal of pride. You make do on your own, always. No handouts or government assistance, ever. You know what’s right and what’s wrong, and the dividing line is usually clear.
But try not eating for 10 days – nearly everyone’s restraints will be eroded. Hunger is hard to ignore. “It took a while to overcome my scruples,” Knight said, but as soon as his principles began to fall away, he snapped off a few ears of corn from one garden, dug up some potatoes from another, and ate a couple of green vegetables.
Once, during his first weeks away, he spent the night in an unoccupied cabin. It was a miserable experience. “The stress of that, the sleepless worry about getting caught, programmed me not to do that again.” Knight never slept indoors after that, not once, no matter how cold or rainy the weather.
Christopher Knight’s camp. Photograph: Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
He continued moving south, picking through gardens, and eventually reached a region with a familiar distribution of trees, along with a diversity of birdcalls and a temperature range he felt accustomed to. It had been colder up north. Knight wasn’t sure precisely where he was, but he knew that it was home ground. It turned out that he was less than 30 miles, as the crow flies, from his childhood home.
In the early days, nearly everything Knight learned was through trial and error. He had been gifted with a good head for figuring out workable solutions to complicated problems. All his skills, from the rigging of the tarps that formed his shelter, to how to store drinking water, to walking through the forest without leaving tracks, went through multiple revisions and were never considered perfect. Tinkering with his systems was one of Knight’s hobbies.
Over the next few months, Knight tried living in several places in the area – including inside a dank hole in a riverbank – all without satisfaction. Finally, he stumbled upon a region of nasty, boulder-choked woods without so much as a game trail running through it; far too harsh for hikers. He liked it immediately. Then he discovered a cluster of boulders, one with a hidden opening that led to a tiny, wondrous clearing. “I knew at once it was ideal. So I settled in.”
Still, he remained hungry. Knight was beginning to realise that is almost impossible to live by yourself all the time. You need help. Hermits across history often ended up in deserts or mountains or woodlands – the sorts of places where it was extremely difficult to find or catch all your own food. To feed themselves, some of the Desert Fathers – third-century Christian Hermits from Egypt – wove reed baskets and sold them. In ancient China, hermits were shamans, herbalists and diviners. Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. It was believed that hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, so advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were lax in grooming and willing to sleep in caves on the country estates of the aristocracy. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests.
Knight, however, felt that anyone’s willing assistance tainted the whole enterprise. He wished to be unconditionally alone; an uncontacted tribe of one.
The cabins around the ponds in central Maine, Knight noted, had minimal security measures. Windows were often left open, even when the owners were away. The woods offered excellent cover, and with few permanent residents, the area would always be empty during the off-season. A summer camp with a big pantry was nearby. The easiest way to become a hunter-gatherer here was obvious.
And so Knight decided to steal.
To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns.”
He perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the habits of the families with cabins along the ponds. He watched their quiet breakfasts and dinner parties, their visitors and vacancies, the cars moving up and down the road. Nothing Knight saw tempted him to return to his former life. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone’s name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns – when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain. A heavy downpour was prime. People stayed out of the woods when it was wet.
Still, Knight did not walk on roads or trails, just in case, and he never launched a raid on a Friday or Saturday – days he knew had arrived from the obvious surge in lakeside noise.
For a while, he opted to go out when the moon was large, so he could use it as a light source. In later years, when he suspected the police had intensified their search for him, he switched to no moon at all. Knight liked to vary his methods. He didn’t want to develop any patterns of his own, though he did make it a habit to embark on a raid only when freshly shaved or with a neatly groomed beard, and wearing clean clothing, so as to reduce suspicion on the slight chance that he was spotted.
There were at least 100 cabins in Knight’s thieving repertoire. The ideal was a fully stocked place, with the family away until the weekend. He knew, in many cases, the precise number of steps required to reach a particular cabin, and once he selected a target, he bounded and weaved through the forest. Sometimes, if he was headed far or needed a load of propane or a replacement mattress it was easier to travel by canoe. Canoes are difficult to hide, and if you steal one, the owner will call the police. It was wiser to borrow, and there was a large selection around the lake, some up on sawhorses and seldom used.
Knight was capable of reaching homes anywhere along the largest pond near his hidden campsite. “I’d think nothing of paddling for hours, whatever needed to be done.” If the water was choppy, he would place a few rocks in the front of the boat to keep it stable. Typically, he stayed close to shore, cloaked against the trees, hiding in the silhouette of the land, though on a stormy night he would paddle across the middle, alone in the dark and lashed by the rain.
When he arrived at his chosen cabin, he would make sure there were no vehicles in the driveway, no sign of someone inside. Burglary is a dicey business, with a low margin for error. One mistake and the outside world would snatch him back. So he crouched in the dark and waited, sometimes for hours. “I enjoy being in the dark,” he said.
He never risked breaking into a home occupied year-round, and he always wore a watch so he could monitor the time.
Sometimes, cabins were left unlocked. Those were the easiest to enter, though soon other places became nearly as simple. Knight had keys to them, found during previous break-ins. He stashed each key on its respective property, typically under some nondescript rock. He created several dozen of these stashes and never forgot where one was.
He noticed when several cabins left out pens and paper, requesting a shopping list, and others offered him bags of supplies, hanging from a doorknob. But he was fearful of traps, or tricks, or initiating any sort of correspondence, even a grocery list. So he left everything untouched, and people stopped.
For the majority of his break-ins, Knight worked the lock on a window or door. He always carried his lock-breaking kit, a gym bag with a collection of screwdrivers and flat bars and files, all of which he had stolen, and could defeat all but the most fortified bolts with the perfect little jiggle of just the right tool. When he had finished stealing, he would often reseal the hasp on the window he had unlatched and exit through the front door, making sure the handle was set, if possible, to lock up behind himself. No need to leave the place vulnerable to thieves.
The bow of a canoe on Lang Pond in Maine’s Northern Forest. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
As the local residents invested in security upgrades, Knight adapted. He knew about alarms from his one paying job, and he used this knowledge to continue stealing – sometimes disabling systems or removing memory cards from surveillance cameras. He evaded dozens of attempts to catch him, by both police officers and private citizens. The crime scenes he left behind were so clean that the authorities offered their begrudging respect. “The level of discipline he showed while he broke into houses,” said one police officer, “is beyond what any of us can remotely imagine – the legwork, the reconnaissance, the talent with locks, his ability to get in and out without being detected.”
A burglary report filed by another officer specifically noted the crime’s “unusual neatness”. The hermit, many officers felt, was a master thief. It was as if he were showing off, picking locks yet stealing little, playing a strange sort of game.
Knight said the moment he opened a lock and entered a home, he always felt a hot wave of shame. “Every time, I was very conscious that I was doing wrong. I took no pleasure in it, none at all.” Once inside a cabin, he moved purposefully, hitting the kitchen first before making a quick sweep of the house, looking for any useful items, or the batteries he always required. He never turned on a light. He used only a small torch attached to a metal chain he wore around his neck.
During a burglary, there wasn’t a moment’s ease. “My adrenaline was spiking, my heart rate was soaring. My blood pressure was high. I was always scared when stealing. Always. I wanted it over as quickly as possible.”
When Knight was finished with the inside of the cabin, he would habitually check the gas grill to see if the propane tank was full. If so, and there was an empty spare lying around, he would replace the full one with an empty, making the grill appear untouched.
Then he would load everything into a canoe, if he had borrowed one, and paddle to the shore closest to his camp to unload. He would return the canoe to the spot he had taken it from, sprinkle some pine needles on the boat to make it appear unused, then haul his loot up through the dense woods, between the rocks, to his home.
Each raid brought Knight enough supplies to last about two weeks, and as he settled once more into his room in the woods – “back in my safe place, success” – he experienced a deep sense of peace.
Knight said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. “I am nothing; I see all,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it “the feeling infinite”. The American mystic Thomas Merton said that “the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself”.
For those who do not choose to be alone – like prisoners and hostages – a loss of one’s socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it “ontological insecurity”, losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time “means risking everything human”. Knight, meanwhile, didn’t even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. “I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.
“If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”
Knight was finally arrested, after 27 years of complete isolation, while stealing food at a lakeside summer camp. He was charged with burglary and theft, and taken to the local jail. His arrest caused an enormous commotion – letters and visitors arrived at the jail, and approximately 500 journalists requested an interview. A documentary film team showed up. A woman proposed marriage.
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Knight is escorted into Kennebec County Superior Court to enter pleas for multiple burglaries and thefts. Photograph: Portland Press Herald/Press Herald via Getty Images
Everyone wanted to know what the hermit would say. What insights had he gained while he was alone? What advice did he have for the rest of us? People have been approaching hermits with similar requests for thousands of years, eager to consult with someone whose life has been so radically different to their own.
Profound truths, or at least those that make sense of the seeming randomness of life, are difficult to find. Thoreau wrote that he had reduced his existence to its basic elements so that he could “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.
Knight did, eventually permit one journalist to meet him, and over the course of nine one-hour visits in the jail, the hermit shared his life story – about how he was able to survive, and what it felt like to live alone for so long.
And once, when he was in an especially introspective mood, Knight seemed willing, despite his typical aversion to dispensing wisdom, to share more of what he gleaned while alone. Was there, the journalist asked him, some grand insight revealed to him in the wild?
Knight sat quietly but he eventually arrived at a reply.
“Get enough sleep,” he said.
He set his jaw in a way that conveyed he wouldn’t be saying any more. This was what he’d learned. It was, without question, the truth.
This is an adapted extract of The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, published by Simon and Schuster
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) — The body of a climber missing on Longs Peak has been found.
Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says the body of the 39-year-old man from Thornton was discovered by searchers on Sunday and flown down by helicopter.
He was mountaineering with two acquaintances on Saturday when he reportedly decided to descend the challenging and popular mountain by himself. When they returned to the trailhead’s parking lot later in the day they saw the man’s car was still there.
At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest mountain in the park and the 15th highest in the state.