Sci-Fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the Glory of Low-Tech Exploration

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Sept. 5 2013 8:08 AM

The Map Is Not the Territory

Sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the glory of low-tech exploration.

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The author on the summit of Mount Williamson

Photo courtesy Kim Stanley Robinson

We’ve been to the moon and just about everywhere on Earth. So what’s left to discover? In September, Future Tense is publishing a series of articles in response to the question, “Is exploration dead?” Read more about modern-day exploration of the sea, space, land, and more unexpected areas. 

When my friends and I go hiking in the Sierra Nevada of California, we spend as much time as we can off-trail, wandering the many high basins and canyons that have no trails at all. It’s true that we know where we are when we do this, in a general sense and even quite precisely. If we took along a GPS system, we would know even better—at least on a map. But the map is not the territory, as we often say to one another, sometimes gloomily; because even if you know where you are on the map, out on the surface of the planet the terrain may be so difficult, and your line of sight thus so limited, that knowing generally where you are doesn’t help when it comes to the question, Where do we go now?

Because you don’t know where to go—always a little shocking, which may be why people merrily follow their GPS navigators into potential disaster—you worry. You pay more attention to space, and this keeps you fixed in time; you live in the moment, feel a frisson of tension, a sense that the stakes have been raised. Even if it only means you have to expend more effort to get where you’re going, there is a sharp urge to get to a place where you know where you are. It’s a heightened state of consciousness: You’re lost!

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One sure way to experience this feeling is to walk up Mount Williamson by way of George Creek canyon. Williamson stands a little north of Mount Whitney, and while hundreds go up Whitney every summer day, you’ll likely have Williamson to yourself. It is a behemoth, located just to the east of the Sierra crest; Ansel Adams took some great photos of it from Manzanar, on the Owens Valley floor. Because it is 14,385 feet tall, there are people who want to climb it as part of ascending all the peaks in California more than 14,000 feet tall. But most of these “fourteeners” take a Class 3 route up the west face. The George Creek canyon route is easier technically, a comfort to those who avoid Class 3, but it has no trail, and the canyon’s streambed is filled with willows and alders and thorn bushes. The creek twists like a snake as it rushes downhill, so the cliffs siding the creek keep alternating side to side. Online reports advise where to switch sides, but they all have different suggestions, and when you get in the canyon you find that none of the advice is the slightest help, because you can’t see far enough to keep track of where you are. If you had GPS and determined exactly where you were on the map, that still wouldn’t help, because no map is detailed enough to elucidate the details of such a landscape at the scale you need to make your decisions. You simply have to eyeball the situation and hike on.

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The willows of George Creek

Photo courtesy Kim Stanley Robinson

Or crawl. You find out that bushwhacking means not you whacking the bush, but the bush whacking you. It’s best to be wearing long pants and sleeves. Some branches are so thorny that the thorns form a surface of sorts and scrape across your skin without catching—until they do, and then the branch flexes and wraps around you like a snake.

Back and forth you go across the stream, not sure where you are, crawling often. You will get wet if you step in the stream, but soon you don’t care. Up you go, lost much of the time, until eventually you rise, tattered and bloody, into the alpine zone, where you return to something like ordinary Sierra hiking. Mount Williamson then confronts you with a 2,000-foot scree slope, followed by a long bouldery road in the sky, then a bowl to ascend, either rocky or snowy, where you have to use your hands to keep your balance; and finally you emerge onto a broad summit plateau, with only a final short trek up to the true summit. All this took us two days.

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Up on the summit plateau

Photo courtesy Kim Stanley Robinson

At that point, on Williamson’s summit, you can see over Mount Tyndall and the rest of the crest of the Sierra—see for scores of miles in every direction, over a wilderness of snowy peaks, with only nearby Whitney a little bit higher. Behind and below you the Owens Valley looks as if you are gazing down on it from an airplane, but the airplane is missing.

Cross-country hikes like this one (but less thorny) exist everywhere in the Sierra Nevada. A lifetime is not long enough to explore all the canyons, basins, ridges, and peaks of the beautiful range of light, and almost all of them are accessible to those with basic walking skills. It’s mostly rambling, with a little scrambling if you want it. And yet the terrain is complicated enough that often it’s easy to get lost. Frequently there are granite labyrinths created by glacial action, not easy to understand even with map and GPS in hand; it feels like being dropped into a giant’s maze, or crossing the knuckles of a giant’s fist; no map is good enough to tell you where you are, and it might take you three hours to cover a mile.

This is especially true if you go up in spring, when the range is still covered with snow. We go on snowshoes, as we are not skilled enough to ski it, as most people do who go snow camping. Either way is great. The trails are under the snow, the range is almost empty of people. It feels like pure wilderness, as if you were in the Yukon or Siberia, or on some unidentified ice planet. Then the weather really matters; you watch the clouds and feel the wind with intense interest, even trepidation.

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I know where I am, but so what?

Photo courtesy Kim Stanley Robinson

So, is this exploring? Maybe not. Maybe the only real exploring left is in the interior of Europa, or the clouds of Saturn, or on the surface of Venus, or the far side of the universe. Certainly there is exploration of this sort left, into the truly unknown—though by the time we get to these places in person, we’ll know them well too. They will be mapped. But here’s my point: If it’s unknown to you, then aren’t you exploring? I can only say, in the Sierra it sure feels like it.

Just last week we were crossing from the west shoulder of the Gemini to Upper Turret Lakes, on a broad ridge in the sky, which our topo map showed as smooth. But we could see a drop ahead, blocked by a knob that kept us from seeing how deep the drop was; it could have stopped us, sent us back ever so many miles. And there was a notch up the other side of the drop that looked vertical. Two potential stoppers, and we hurried along that ridge round-eyed, hearts pounding, ignorant of what we would find. It was an ancient feeling, a primate thrill. Exploration was alive. 

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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