Andrew Skurka and I met “online” (who didn’t, these days?) what now seems like a long time ago, while he was preparing for a trek across the CONUS from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts. At that time, he was asking me questions about how to keep his feet warm during the winter while trekking through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and what to do about bears once he reached Montana.
Those early conversations make me laugh now, because Andy can pretty much school anyone when it comes to gear selection and wilderness skills in hostile environments.
I got to know Andy well when he worked for Backpacking Light as a business development intern in 2005, and our family has always had a soft spot for his contagious enthusiasm to live life to its fullest. My own feelings towards Andy have oscillated between envy (for getting to see wild places in their most raw state, with a lens of primality), awe (for his physical and mental prowess at facing unbelievably difficult challenges in the wild), and privilege (for counting him as a friend).
Andy just returned from a 4,500 mile circumnavigation of the major mountain ranges of the state of Alaska and Canadian Yukon, a journey that was featured in a recent issue of National Geographic. I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the trip, but more important, dive in a little bit deeper about the Skurka Way of Life.
(Interview Date: March 29, 2011)
Ryan: So, what are you? I mean, how do you identify yourself? If you were to introduce yourself to somebody, and say, “Hi, I’m Andrew Skurka and I’m a __________.” How would you fill in the blank?
Andy: That’s always a challenge — it’d be easier to say that I’m an accountant or lawyer. People get that, and expect it to. I would describe myself as a “budding adventurer.” I’ve transitioned away from being a straight-up backpacker, but I think I need another trip or two to get the adventurer degree.
Ryan: So Alaska – that was a warmup, then?
Andy: I would never call it a warm-up, but it wasn’t a cool-down or finale either. I’d describe it as my first long-distance adventure.
Ryan: I think you’ve made a unique mark – some might call it a reputation – as doing expeditions that cover very long distances in very short periods of time. Is that a fair assessment of what you’ve done to date? If not, then what do you see as your unique signature as an adventurer?
Andy: That’s an accurate assessment. I’ve been pursuing the “further, faster, and lighter” mantra for quite a while now — my first long trip was in 2002 and I’ve gotten out pretty much every year since then. Originally I only applied it to conventional backpacking trips (i.e. thru-hikes) but I’ve been applying it to more complicated and committing trips since 2008.
Ryan: Do you see your contribution as an adventurer in the future continuing down this line, or do you see yourself developing into something else as you continue to explore?
Andy: I’m reluctant to say that I’m making a contribution. If others perceive it that way, fine — but I’m just doing trips that I want to do, because I think I’ll get something out of them. Yes, I do expect that future trips will be along these lines. If you look at the progression of my trips, they’ve had a steady increase in difficulty. My first trip was the Appalachian Trail, and I was able to finish it despite having no skills and no experience when I started. In comparison, I can think of only a few individuals in the world who have the potential do complete the Alaska-Yukon Expedition.
Ryan: Your Great Western Loop trek was ambitious enough, and garnered enough PR and stature in and of itself to carry you towards the National Geographic Adventurer-of-the-Year award. The Alaska-Yukon Expedition was so much more – on so many levels – physical challenge, remoteness, risk, skill requirements, commitment – I have a hard time reconciling the fact that the GWL was recognized as “the trip of the year” when you did it, and then wondering what will become of your Alaska-Yukon trip in terms of public attention. Do you anticipate the Alaska-Yukon expedition becoming your new “signature” (at least until your next one) or are you able to still identify with the GWL?
Andy: I think the Alaska-Yukon trip has received more public attention than the Great Western Loop, especially thanks to the 16-page feature story in National Geographic’s March issue. And turnouts at recent presentations have been huge — there were 300 people at my presentation last Thursday at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, which I think is more than they’ve ever had, despite having countless legends speak there (e.g. Royal Robbins in speaking there in April). Part of the public recognition might be cumulative — “How does he keep finding a way to up the ante? And how does he keep pulling these things off, despite all the odds against him?” — but I think the Alaska-Yukon trip has a special appeal because of the public’s impression of Alaska and the Yukon. It’s the last frontier, the greatest wilderness in the world, the home of more grizzly bears and caribou than people, etc.
Regarding the second part of that question, I no longer associate strongly with the the Great Western Loop. I’m very proud of that accomplishment — it demonstrated enormous athletic prowess and mental discipline — but it’s not where I’m at anymore. It’d be like a high schooler who is taking calculus classes to still be identifying themselves as a graduate of 6th grade algebra.
Ryan: We’ve sat down together over beer, or on the phone – prior to both your GWL and AK treks – and bounced ideas off each other about your expeditions. They focused on “what to do” that would be big, bold, and unique. Yes — you have / are upping the ante, so to speak. Everyone wants to know “what’s next” but I promised myself not to ask that. Instead — now that Alaska is in the bag — are you going to look at planning your next big expedition in the context of “what to do”, or will you focus more on “where to go” or a particular style, length, something else?
Andy: “What’s next?” is a question I get too often, as if brilliant ideas like the Sea-to-Sea Route, Great Western Loop, or Alaska-Yukon Expedition are as countless as unclimbed peaks in the Himalaya or virgin couloirs in the Chugach Range. I think my primary motivation for the next trip is the experience, or feel, of it. The most redeeming feature of the Alaska-Yukon Expedition — by that, I mean the scariest part from which I learned the most — was the BIG wilderness I experienced in the Yukon Arctic and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I’d like to experience that again, maybe on an even bigger scale. Travel mode, location, and length will all play a role in formulating another trip too.
Ryan: The Tibetan plateau is pretty big.
Andy: Yes it is. As is some of the islands in the Canadian Archipelago.
Ryan: At one point, I think Roman was talking to us about a packrafting trek up there. Maybe global warming will open up new opportunities for exploring that area.
Ryan: So you are in this interesting life cycle. Plan a huge trip. Execute it. Spend the next year on a speaking tour and doing what you call “littler trips” while planning the next big trip. Repeat. Did you choose this lifestyle, or did it choose you?
Andy: Both — it’s the pattern that seems to work, for me personally as well as my economic realities. My pride and identity is wrapped up in my big trips. But I can’t always be on one — I need to plan them and fund them, and I want some semblance of a normal life too. The smaller trips are useful in between the big trips: they help me gain new skills and experiences, they solve a perpetual case of cabin fever, and they are accommodating to an ambitious public speaking schedule (this year I’m expecting to give about 50 presentations) and to some private guiding.
Ryan: Is this your career or do you see yourself in some sort of post-graduate, pre-career phase?
Andy: For now, it’s my career. But I think it will evolve, as has the career of other outdoor luminaries before me. Given how skill-intensive these trips are, I could see myself peaking in my mid- or late-40’s, long after I’m on the backside of my physical strength and endurance. But, with age, it seems that the appeal of civilian life and the need to do something that’s not so self-centered increases.
Ryan: You’re guiding now, writing more, speaking more. This looks like a career forming. How busy do you want to be?
Andy: This has been a career since 2006, but it seems to be growing especially fast right now. I feel like I’m at a critical juncture, where I have to get some major projects going or completed in order to set myself up for long-term sustainability. So I’m okay with the busyness for now. But eventually I would like to outsource the mechanics of these projects so that I can focus on the things that only I can do — I need to give the presentation, write the book, and guide the trip, but I can have someone else schedule the events, fill the orders, and do my finances.
Ryan: What do you want most, that you don’t have now? What is your expedition lifestyle incapable of providing to you?
Andy: For now, nothing. I’m a very happy guy. I get to go on amazing trips; and then when I return I get to wow audiences, go skiing with my friends, and date a beautiful woman. As someone told me recently, “It’s not fair that you have the best of both worlds — the wanderlust of a gypsy and the joys of being in a community.”
Ryan: We’ve talked at length in the past about expedition planning logistics, and of course, your famous “spreadsheet”. Carrying out one of these trips – do your expeditions demand this level of detail, or is this just part of what you bring to the table when you plan an expedition?
Andy: The extensive planning I do is partly necessary and partly just me. Before I left for the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, I gave myself a 60/40 chance of finishing and a 10 percent chance of not coming back. If I hadn’t done all that planning, I think my odds would not have been as high. For example, I might have made poor macro route planning decisions, costing me precious time or worse; I might have had inadequate gear or supplies, which would at least caused unnecessary discomfort; and some of the sections would have been logistically impossible without advance planning. That said, it would have been possible to “wing it” more than I did, but it’s not in my nature to let the resulting risks go uncontrolled if I can do something about it beforehand.
Ryan: I’ve reviewed your gear list, and I think you could save some weight and shave off a half pound – heck, maybe even a whole pound. Do you care?
Andy: Once upon a time, I definitely would care. But an extraneous 8 ounces is negligible when I’m carrying a 17-lb base weight with two weeks of food. On the Alaska trip, durability and familiarity were very important to me, which is why I used things like the GoLite Pinnacle and 3-pin telemark bindings and boots — in both cases, there were lighter alternatives, but I couldn’t trust them as much.
Ryan: When you did the GWL you tied it to a “cause” – increasing awareness of the threats facing the wilderness of the American West. Then you went to Alaska and basically said, “nah, no causes this time.” Why did you do that?
Andy: I’ve becoming very pessimistic that humans have the capacity to make the long-term decisions to sustain our well being. The writing is on the wall, yet no one wants to do anything about it — our fate really is an inconvenient truth. The American economy is going to be severely punished by our debt, which will have worldwide repercussions; and the entire human race is going to be punished by what we are doing to the environment. I’m very disappointed in myself for thinking that we are fundamentally incompetent of fixing either problem, but I can’t seem to arrive at a different conclusion. I feel like the previous generation has maxed out my credit card and left me holding the bill, and they’re not apologetic for it. In light of that, I’m focused on doing what makes me happiest and on how I can make real improvements and contributions to my immediate niche, i.e. my family, friends, and local community.
Ryan: You grew up in the age when personal mobile communications technology exploded, but you’ve generally not been too plugged in yourself on your trips. Why? Do you’ll think you’ll embrace it more on future trips? How do you see this impacting backcountry travel in the next few years, especially as satellite communication services get really cheap?
Andy: Mobile communications have two functions: as a safety net, and as a marketing tool. I think it’d be foolish to not carry one for safety sake. Using one for marketing is an optional activity, and I’ve generally stayed away from extensively using one for this purpose because it’s a distraction. One of the main reasons for these trips is to get “out there” — So why stay plugged in all the time and limit that experience?
Ryan: Everyone wants to know the answer to three questions. Number 1. How do I have your lifestyle? I tell them they just need to go to Duke, and the doors of the Ivy League will swing open wide. What do you say?
Andy: I say, don’t think it’ll be easy. There are a few ways to have a similar lifestyle. (1) Get a job that has a lot of field time — wildlife biology, wind turbine repair, NOLS instructor. (2) Buy your freedom. Work really hard when you’re young, save every penny, make a lot of money, and retire at 40, or 30 if you get lucky. (3) Work, travel, work, travel. Repeat indefinitely. I think planning to be a “professional adventurer” is about as realistic as planning to be a basketball player, so I don’t usually encourage it.
Ryan: I think most people have an unrealistic view of people who live the lives they (the other people) think they want, but the recipe for any sort of success is pretty much the same: it’s a lot of hard work. I think the difference between those who are living relatively unsatisfying lives and those that are living relatively satisfying lives is that they either don’t enjoy the work, or they do.
Number 2. Would you give all this up – the opportunities to explore vast continental traverses for months at a time – for anything? If so, what would that be?
Ryan: I’m going to ask you that question in twenty years. We’ll table it until then.
Number 3. What’s next? No, no – I mean – what’s next in terms of what you didn’t do in the past, and aren’t doing today, that you might be doing in the future – not just expeditioning – but “something else”?
Andy: I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now, thanks. Don’t want to change a thing.