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Without Walls May 26, 2004

GOING IT ALONE

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Last winter, I went down to Salt Lake to stay with friends so I could attend an outdoor trade show and do some skiing in the Wasatch Range. My friends lived in Sandy, right at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and both held jobs at Alta during the ski season. When I arrived they weren't home so I met their roommates.

After talking for a while and getting acquainted, we started to discuss backcountry skiing. One of the roommates mentioned that another guy from Boise happened to be staying with them who loved to go out in the backcountry alone. He had been skiing all over Little Cottonwood Canyon and the roommates were worried because they didn't understand this guy's crazy love of soloing.

The soloist was Jason Harper. Jason disappeared two weeks ago while ski mountaineering in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. He was alone at the time.

I was lucky enough to spend two great days with Jason in the Wasatch backcountry that weekend I was in Salt Lake. On my final morning in SLC, we woke at 4:30 a.m. and drove up to the base of Mount Superior across from Snowbird ski resort. We started up Superior at 5 a.m. and reached the 13,000-foot summit around 9 a.m. We were rewarded with 3,000 feet of fluffy powder turns. If I hadn't been there to ski with Jason, he would have done it by himself.

Going solo is hard for most people to understand. Why would you want to be in the wilderness alone? It's been done for years in so many different outdoor sports but yet it's still hard to comprehend.

A couple of years ago I was interviewing Doug Ammons, a Missoula paddler who soloed the Stikine in Canada's Northwest Territory, maybe one of the most remote class V rivers in North America. He had a difficult time talking about his solo adventure when I prodded him.

"It's so intensely personal that I have a hard time putting it into words," he said.

In 1980, Reinhold Messner soloed Mount Everest. Can you imagine being on the summit of the world's tallest mountain alone? Just the thought of it is intimidating.

"Jason spent so much time taking people out in the backcountry as a guide that I think he enjoyed the speed of solo travel," explains Harper's good friend Brad Backus (it was Backus' house in Salt Lake where Jason and I stayed). "He once told me that he enjoyed taking people to places that they wouldn't get to otherwise. He didn't want to be slowed up when he was out there (doing his own projects)."

There is also a comfort level involved in solo backcountry travel. Hours of hiking, paddling, or skiing alone gives one plenty of time with their own head. For some, a mind left un-attended can be worse than the fear of falling into a crevasse.

"Most people aren't content with themselves and can't handle the silence for that long," Backus said. "Jason was very comfortable with himself."

Jason's resume is impressive. He coached alpine racing at Alyeska Resort in Alaska, made backcountry descents in New Zealand, Europe and South America, and helped get other people involved in backcountry glisse. Yet what I find most impressive about all of his accomplishments on skis was his ability to sustain himself without any help. He was once stuck out in the South American Andes for eight days with just his bivy sack and ski equipment. After he was dropped off by a bush plane the weather turned warm and wet, creating horrendous avalanche conditions. He was forced to wait out the perilous snow cycle alone with his own head.

"I got a lot of thinking done during that time," he once told me.

Jason Harper was a far cry from conventional. When he stayed at people's houses he didn't really stay at their house. He slept outside in his sleeping bag, even in the dead of winter. But Jason never minded answering questions about his eccentricities. He was happy with who he was.