On the Beauty of Secrets in an Age of Total Information
“Three may keep a Secret, if two are dead”- Ben Franklin.
Psst! Can you keep a secret? I have something I want to tell you.
We live in an age where the sum totality of human knowledge is carried around in our pockets with us and we are largely oblivious to how this changes our way of thinking. Not that I think that this is a bad thing; just the opposite in fact. I love being able to look up anything at all at any time. But it does make keeping secrets harder. And by secrets, I mean outdoor secrets.
Outdoor secrets are a particular kind of secret. No one’s going to blackmail you over them, and no one gets shot or loses their job or anything like that. But as more and more people enter the backcountry, or perhaps desert the true backcountry for the frontcountry and sidecountry – the crowds are out there. And there are some things that are better without crowds. Nobody wants to go visit a sweet backcountry hut only to be jammed in it like a sardine with 8 dozen loud boisterous people you don’t know, or even worse, have their alarms go off, stoves fired up, and dogs barking at 3 AM. It’s nice to have a powder stash that won’t be reliably tracked out by people slightly faster to get there than you after every big dump. And it’s in climbing where secrets really come into their own. Secret crags, secret boulders that only you and some friends know about , sure, but friends all have other friends, there goes your secret, eventually. And it’s when it comes to first ascents that secrets really come into their own.
You spot a line. Doesn’t matter how. Maybe from another peak nearby, or from hiking to the base and trying and failing. Maybe you’re out walking through the woods and suddenly, bam, there’s this house sized boulder with a line of mossy crimps running up its overhanging face. Maybe you’re dropping in to a canyon in the summer and you think hey, this thing would be rad if it ever froze….
Now, unless you’re going to solo that awesomeness, you are going to need partners. So you have to find someone you can trust to share the secret with. But how well can you trust them? And how well do you trust your memory? Maybe you go back later with a friend and you can’t find that boulder at all anymore. Maybe that peak that your memory says is so good turns out to be a pile of talus glued together with dust when you get back to it. Things can change.
And finally, you don’t want to keep a secret anyway. You have the phone, the SLR, the GoPRO shooting HDMI 1080p, the slaved drone following you around. You took the shot, it’s on YouTube, it’s on Instagram. It’s getting tons of hits. But everyone that sees it asks you “Hey, where is that?” And one of them is going to recognize it – eventually. Sooner or later your secret isn’t going to be so secret anymore.
Last winter a friend and I took a gamble. We spent three hours driving icy logging roads into a remote part of the Fraser River drainage just in case there was ice there. And oh boy, was there ever ice. Dozens of sweet lines dropping down granite buttresses. You couldn’t make this up, people wouldn’t believe you. There it was. We hadn’t expected anything like this. We grabbed our gear, bushwacked across the talus, climbed an awesome route. No slings on the tree at the top. A first ascent. One of the best routes of the grade around
But there were all those other routes to come back for. And we wanted it to be us to climb them. So we didn’t say much. But I couldn’t resist it. I put a picture or two on Facebook. And everybody that saw it asked “Hey where is that?” I figured a few of them would guess. But no one did. Kinda surprising because you can see the ice we climbed from a major highway and all – in the distance, sure, but still.
But it wasn’t all that simple. I got a private message from a guy I barely knew. Turned out my secret valley was his and his friends’ secret too. Seemed they’d done a couple climbs in there already. Even tried and failed a couple times on the thing we showed up and got lucky on. So we were reinventing the wheel. We were poaching someone else’s secret lines. But there was no brawl. He was pretty stoked to have someone to share the secret with, it turned out.
All through the intervening summer I sat on my hands and kept a poker face. But it’s cold outside and I’m going back soon with a couple of friends, old and new. There’s more ice to climb there, and we’re going to have a good time. If you can figure out where it is, maybe we’ll see you there. If not, I’ll tell you once we’ve climbed all the stuff we can. You see, some secrets are just too good to keep forever.