ocean crossings, and floe breakups before coming home safely, each and every one of them.
Shackleton later observed, “We had seen God in
His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” 6
He and his mates came to grips with themselves
and bonded with each other in ways few could
fathom — to such a degree that many of the
crew planned another expedition to the Antarctic, this time on a ship named Quest. (But Shackleton died en route in 1922 at age 47.)
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant intuited that the natural world brings out the naked
soul of humanity. I’d echo Shackleton by adding
particularly when facing extremes. Kant postulated that knowledge transcends experience and requires comprehension beyond the empirical senses. 7
Kant referred to this as analytical judgment. If he
sat by himself on a hill, appreciating the pastoral
splendor, Kant analogized, no matter how well
he subsequently recounted the episode to others,
they would not be able to understand fully the
rapture he had taken in. 8 You had to be there.
Kant called this sensing the sublime nature found
in all things, even in us humans. But, it seems to
me, we often don’t perceive our own sublime nature because of the layers we adorn ourselves
with. The reasons are many, including family responsibilities, daily obligations, societal expectations, educational steps, career goals, and personal aspirations. To obtain the self-actualization
Maslow refers to, and these famous adventurers
reference, such strata need to be removed. And
one mechanism to make this happen is the wilderness, challenging oneself in it.
Put another way, Walter Bonatti, an Italian
mountaineer who pioneered many difficult
climbing routes in Europe and the Himalayas in
the 1950s and ’60s, declared, “Mountains are the
means, the man [i.e., human being] is the end.
The goal is not to reach the tops of mountains,
but to improve the man.” 9 I second this tenet.
Helping my clients actualize their dreams allows
me to tap into my own sublime nature. I see people disclose their pure self in the wilderness,
where they’re shorn of facades that hide and impede. The grandeur of the outdoors inspires them
— and its jeopardy obliges them — to find their
place among nature’s other inhabitants, and we
have shared in the mutual uplift inherent in such
opportunities. Many of my clients feel grateful to
be alive because of these endeavors, and for me,
that’s Maslow’s transcendent level. What follows
are some of their stories, and mine.
A whale of a story
A novice wilderness adventurer wanting to
“live life to the fullest,” as she phrased it, booked
a weeklong kayaking trip with me off the Kenai
Peninsula of Alaska in summer 1992. Sea kay-
aking, requiring only minimal skills at paddling,
offers beginners an interactive close-up of na-
ture. This young stockbroker from San Francis-
co, plus five additional clients, looked forward to
contemplating calving glaciers the size of the
Empire State Building and spotting sea creatures
such as whales, seals and puffins, while leisurely
traversing deep fjords and protected coves. She
got what she came for — and then some!
Weathering the storm
“Man must be made conscious of his origin as
a child of Nature,” wrote John Muir, a naturalist
and explorer who advocated for the establishment
of U.S. national parks and cofounded the Sierra
Club grassroots environmental organization in
1892 and served as its first president. “Brought
into right relationship with the wilderness he
would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow
creatures and destroy the common heritage, but
rather an integral part of a harmonious whole.” 12
In the outdoors, sometimes this awareness occurs under duress — a dream becoming a nightmare — as a retired CIA worker and I apprehended on a 10-day hike in summer 1993. Backpacking in the northern foothills of the Wrangell
Mountains in the 13. 2 million-acre Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park of eastern Alaska, this senior
adventurer and I relied on the full use and
exploitation of our talents, capacities and potentialities, to borrow from Maslow, to survive a torrential rainstorm.
This expanse contained no manmade trails,
only paw paths of Dall sheep and caribou, and
no bridges, only intermittent shallows in swift
creeks to wade. Thus, as Muir urged, we had to
integrate ourselves with the primeval surroundings. Indeed, without signs telling us where to
turn or how much farther to a campsite, we
went back to basics: maps and a compass. We
had taken no chances with other supplies either,
cramming our backpacks with freeze-dried
meals, water purifiers, mosquito repellant,
changes of clothes, and a first-aid kit. I also carried a loaded shotgun and extra ammunition.
Cold rain pounded nonstop the first four days.
The showers pelted our tent, so sleep was hard to
come by. Flash floods streaked the mountainside,
unearthing rocky ditches to trudge. Cresting rivers and creeks meant taking circuitous routes to
keep our general course. Everything — deluged
land, soggy brush, soaked animals — seemed
overcome with waterlogged weariness.
Our spirits lifted the next evening when the
teeming let up, and the midnight sun cast a golden
glow. Because of the havoc the rains had wreaked
on the terrain, I determined that we should make
camp on a creek’s higher bench instead of lower
sandbars, as gravity causes the force of destruction downward. After savoring our first meal outside the tent and trying to dry out, we decided to
retire early to our sleeping bags since we had a
long haul the next morning. Before turning in, we
made room in our backpacks for all remaining
food and the other odorous items, and since there
was no tree in the vicinity on which to hang them
in case the smells lured a prowling bear, I stashed
the gear on a ledge at the most distant yet still accessible point from our tent. The lullaby of the
gurgling brook helped us sleep easy.
But around 3 a.m. we awoke to the roar of a
gushing river and the rumble of descending
boulders as the downpour resumed. I poked