Once there was a toilet on Mount Baker, Larry said. It was nothing fancy: just a fiber-glass box with a hole on top. It was there at 7,000 feet for anyone who reached it, which must have been enough people to justify the trouble of installing it in the first place. A helicopter had dropped the toilet near the glacier, and every so often a helicopter returned to replace it, flying off into the scenery with a brimming tub of human waste. No similar effort was made to put another human convenience on Mount Baker—say, a lean-to or a barbecue pit. Before man wanted a solid roof over his head or a warm plate of food, he needed a seat on which to move his bowels.
But the toilet was gone now, Larry continued. These were austerity times, and the National Park Service could not afford the upkeep. Then Larry disappeared into his tent to finally find the answer to our somewhat pressing question as to what had taken its place.
My five Wilderness Collective companions and I sat on the patch of rock where we would have liked to build a fire except there was no wood at this altitude with which to build it. We had just eaten dinner, and the sun spilled its guts into the darkening sky: The long mountain dusk was nearly extinguished. Larry returned with six plastic pouches. Each pouch contained a ziplock foil bag, which itself contained a large plastic trash bag. These bags were, according to the adjectives on their labels, “new,” “disposable,” and “spillproof.” Each of us, we learned, would have to carry his bag back down the mountain. This was both disconcerting and, given the purpose of our trip, depressing: How could you be one with nature if you couldn’t shit in it?
The bags were the subject of much discussion, reminding me of one reason I’d never cared much for camping: You left behind civilization for a few days and found yourself with less privacy than ever. Larry explained that Mount Baker had many visitors, and if every one made like a bear in the woods, the mountainside would be covered in excrement. This was hard to fathom, but then we had run in to a lot of people coming down the trail as we climbed up it. “Are you going to the top?” two paunchy, older men had asked as we passed. “There were 200 people up there today.”
“I’ve seen weiner dogs going up the mountain,” I heard another hiker tell his friend. I hoped he was talking about some other mountain because Mount Baker was making my legs burn. My main preparation for the trip had been an experiment in facial hair, wherein I quit shaving to see if my boyish cheeks had given up their resistance. They hadn’t, and I arrived with the beard of a backwoods teenager, the mustache having come in thick, the rest in patches.
Before flying from New York to Seattle to meet my hiking companions, I’d also watched a Wilderness Collective video online. Masculinity was “eroding,” the narrator said in the film, which was made during one of the Wilderness Collective’s other expeditions, a motorcycle ride from Sequoia to Yosemite. Men today were seen as “weak and blundering and misguided and shallow,” but the Wilderness Collective could fix that, by giving its clients a way to “reclaim masculinity through adventure.” To help our fledgling manhood along, there would also be “craft cocktails and artisan food.” The road shots of motorcycling were spliced with footage of grilled meat, fresh fruit and fine cheeses. The men rode identical Honda bikes and wore matching clothing from fashionable sponsors like Sierra Designs.
Here were New Men—sensitive, style-conscious, and proudly urban—revisiting an old manhood that had grown passé. They schlepped into the forest the material comforts, ephemeral fashions, and rampant consumption of the city, the very things their forebears in manly adventure were trying to escape. It called to mind a scene in John Cheever’s The Wapshott Chronicles, where young Coverly Wapshott enrages his father by packing a cookbook on a fishing trip. “The sense was not only that he had failed himself and his father,” Cheever wrote. “He had profaned the mysterious rites of virility.” The Wilderness Collective looked like a convent of Coverlies, armed not with cookbooks but an actual private chef.
It hit a little close to home: At heart, I knew I was a Coverly too. I lived in Brooklyn and overspent on clothes and cocktails—and I am OK with that, most of the time. Didn’t I find, like Paul Theroux, “the quest for manliness essentially rightwing, puritanical, cowardly, neurotic, and fueled largely by a fear of women”? Yes, absolutely, and this belief did nothing to change the fact that I have wanted and sometimes tried in life to feel more manly. In fact, I was trying as I rendered judgment on the Wilderness Collective video, because one of the easiest ways to feel manly is to feel superior to other men’s efforts to feel manly.
This might offer a clue as to why thousands of other young men (and women) had watched the Wilderness Collective motorcycle video when it went online last winter. It revealed both the overconfidence—I look great!—and the insecurity—am I manly?—of the contemporary urban man. The Wilderness Collective said it could resolve this tension, but the video also drew new attention to it, including mine. I wrote to Steve Dubbledam. He invited me to join in the Mount Baker trip, a three-day climb up the 12,000-foot glaciated volcano, complete with crampons and ice axes. He said it would be “legendary.”
“Legendary adventures for men” was, it turns out, the Wilderness Collective’s official motto. Dubbledam founded the outfitting company after running a denim company and a luggage company. “I need to not be a serial entrepreneur,” he said as we trucked toward Mount Baker. Steve was 30-years-old, with a barrel wave of brown hair and a 24-7 five o’clock shadow. He also planned to expand the Wilderness Collective to include a product line, and he helped his wife run a quarterly magazine called Darling. Its official motto was “the art of being a woman.”
For now, though, Steve was focused on the five men he had brought to Mount Baker. We were cut from the same cloth, even before Steve handed out matching boots and backpacks—white, college educated, politically liberal, and aged 28 to 35. Previous expeditions had proven more popular, and all but one of us was traveling for a professional reason or through a personal connection. I was writing an article. Noal from Portland worked for Danner, the boot company that sponsored the trip. John from Portland had come along to assist Casey from Los Angeles, who was the official photographer. Only Jersey John was what you might consider a “pure” customer. He had signed up months earlier, after visiting the Wilderness Collective’s website. He worked at a Manhattan ad agency, practiced mixed martial arts, and drove a Lotus. Thirty-one years old, he had married, divorced, and was father to a seven-year-old boy. “My twenties were something,” he told me. “I’m a young man but I’m an old soul.”
Finally, there were Larry and Matt, the professional mountain men whose local company, Inner Passage, had partnered with the Wilderness Collective to guide us to the summit. They met us at the trailhead, where Steve immediately began handing out sponsored gear.
“They look extremely serious,” Steve said, as we fitted our Danner hiking boots and Boreas backpacks. “That’s my main goal.”
Then he handed us each a flask filled with a smoked Manhattan. “On the non-hiking trips, we have a different cocktail each night,” Steve said later at the campsite. However, those trips had large support crews: The bike gang actually had a big-rig truck to carry its camp equipment. The only way to get anything up Mount Baker, though, was to carry it on our backs. It was therefore a good test of the Wilderness Collective mission: If we wanted to maintain an aesthetic, we would have to Fitzcarraldo it ourselves.
To help with the haul, Matt and Larry had an intern. His name was Jake, and he carried an 80-pound pack of food. Pasta, sausage, pesto, blueberries, cheese, pancake mix, ground beef, refried beans, guacamole, and chocolate cake—it didn’t add up to anything as exciting as the slab of meat being blowtorched in the motorcycle video, but our meals were certainly gourmet compared to the suet mountaineers usually digest. “That’s always my goal for these trips,” Steve said. “The best food humanly possible, given the environment.” There was also coffee, which was treated with all the ritual you would expect.
What, though, about manliness? That first day, we had hiked through a tall pine forest, then through fields of snow and heather, where sweat bees humped the tiny flowers. We proceeded single file onto a narrow ridge called the railroad grade. Hundreds of feet tall and only a few feet wide, it led us along the edge of the glacial moraine, past the tree line, and to the campsite in the mountain’s alpine zone. We got the Lord of the Rings references out of our systems, but masculinity hardly came up at all, aside from something Matt had said as we started out. “With physical exertion there’s a lot of mental clarity,” he told us. He hoped the trip would be “about letting go of some of the guard we have up as men.” (“We will do a naked drum circle,” Larry added.)
Easy for Matt to say. He had Guinness-record dimples on a superhero’s jawline, plus the rare ability to look cool while wearing a visor. He was like a Hollywood actor playing a mountaineer except a real mountaineer—the kind who has suffered herniated disks in his back in the Himalayas then walked four days back to camp. The kind who has seen men die on mountains.
The problem with most adventure travel, Matt told me as we hiked toward the campsite, was that it was “unframed.” His company, Inner Passage, developed short trips around what he had identified as the five key components of adventure: high endeavor, uncertain outcome, total commitment, tolerance for adversity, and great companionship. He had even written an inspirational memoir called Adventure in Everything about how these components can enrich ordinary living. For this reason, he was curious about my own writing. “Basically no travel articles are shitty,” he said. “No one ever says, ‘Oh, this trip sucked.’ Why is that?”
It felt as though he was reading my mind. At that moment, I was mentally complaining: The Wilderness Collective’s own fixation on framing was getting on my nerves. “We live in a world that is obsessed with documentation, and largely self-documentation,” the company’s website said, explaining why it banned phones and cameras for customers. “We want to create experiences for you to be present in the moment rather than feel the frantic urge to capture the moment—so we bring along talented photographers and film-makers to do the work of chronicling the trip for you.” Between them, Casey and Portland John carried several cameras, including a pair of GoPros, those tiny weatherproof video cameras that you can clip to a hat or boot. The pace of our hike that morning was largely determined by their documentation, as Larry led Casey, Steve, and Portland John ahead to set up shots of the rest of us coming up the trail. We were not simply men climbing a mountain to learn something about manliness. We were men playing parts in a multimedia project about men climbing a mountain to learn something about manliness.
Naturally, Steve was the director. His jokes (Steve was constantly joking) indicated that the film was never far from his mind. The first night, I sat with Jersey John on the sidelines of a game of bocci that was no longer game of bocci. It had become a game of see-who-can-throw-the-bocci-ball-farthest, and Steve was winning. When Portland John ventured an underhand toss, Steve gently ribbed him: “Underhand? That’s not going in the movie.”
The snow where they played was rumpled with sun cups and stained with red algae. It gave way occasionally to outcroppings of rock, each of which was colonized by a campsite. As we set up our own campsite, I was reminded of another reason why I never cared much for the outdoors: the greatest test of patience known to man, aka assembling a tent.
Steve and Casey planned shots for the film over by Casey’s tent. “When you don’t have a fire, you can’t stay out, you don’t get introspective,” I overheard Steve say. “The quality of conversation is better with fire.” We did our best without one, covering our bases—work, family, sports, etc. Later, however, Portland John told Casey’s camera, “The conversation is more intimate. It isn’t your normal guy-to-guy conversation.” I would have said it was exactly your normal guy-to-guy conversation, but then I figured Portland John wasn’t so much describing the trip as he was thinking about what would sound good in the movie.
Now, in feminism’s wake, it’s a pillar of a liberal arts education that gender is a performance—hence academia’s preference for discussing it in terms of “gender roles.” And it’s the recognition of this performance as such, that allows some men to soften its edges without feeling any less manly themselves. It is, however, still a performance—and, like any performance, it can sometimes feel inauthentic. Seeking an escape, men today have taken to returning to some version of the old manhood, since there isn’t any other obvious place to go. Get a group of guys together to wear excessively pocketed clothing and smell bad for a few days in a forest, out of sight from others. If you want a physical challenge, hire experts like Matt and Larry to guide you. If you’re a real psycho, try not to kill yourself at a Tough Mudder competition.
The Wilderness Collective’s prescription, by contrast, was more extreme performance. If the urban man who says I look great sometimes wonders am I manly?, then its answer was: look better. One thing the company made obvious was the extent to which corporations recognized manly malaise as a marketing opportunity. The Wilderness Collective was more than just an outfitting company; it was a lifestyle brand built largely out of other brands. “This is Sierra Design,” Steve had said, introducing Matt to his jacket. “I’ve got the NEMO version of that,” he said, pointing to another piece of gear. Danner, Boreas, Verve Coffee, Action Cookies, SnowPeak, Gin & Luck … “My brand is eclectic,” Steve had said.
The active ingredient in all of this was adventure: We would bring the brand to life by hauling it up a mountain. We would give it “story quality,” as Steve had put it in an interview with Gear Patrol. The film we were making was as much for the Wilderness Collective’s sponsors as it was for us. At dusk our first day, a hiker sat on a far-off ridge. Casey said he wished he could take his photo. “Nah,” Steve said. “You can’t see his boots from here.”
When the Wilderness Collective presented video of an earlier trip to a corporate sponsor, “an exec had complained it took too long to show their logo,” Steve said. “We had to re-edit it for them.” At the same time, the company also understood the danger of overdoing it. “All the brands understand if in a film you put too much product placement, people check out.” And as commercials go, the Wilderness Collective videos could be pretty persuasive. “I have a bike because of this guy,” said Jersey John, the adman, pointing toward Steve. He had bought the Honda bike from the Wilderness Collective motorcycle video. And, of course, signed up for his own Wilderness Collective trip.
The second night on Mount Baker, manhood resurfaced in conversation. We had spent the day practicing mountaineering skills near the campsite. Once again, Matt was the person to broach the subject. Inner Passage wanted to help its clients find “what engages you and pulls you forward,” Matt said. “As men, we often miss this opportunity. Women are better it.”
Matt gave us each a deck of cards. Every card named a single attribute: creativity, curiosity, experience, etc. Matt asked us to divide our decks in half based on the qualities we most valued, and he had us repeat this until we were down to six cards. Then we put these six cards in order of personal importance and shared our first choice with each other. I chose wisdom. Jersey John chose effectiveness; Casey, health; Noal, self-realization; Portland John, integrity; and Steve chose spirituality.
“These values are different than what is messaged as masculine,” Matt said. I’m not sure that’s precisely true–none of them seemed at least to negate traditional masculinity—but his choice of verb steered the conversation into unexpected territory.
“There’s so much messaging pulling you in one direction,” Steve said, taking over. “You don’t believe every ad you see. But subconsciously it accumulates.”
Matt asked us who thought he had achieved his attribute. Steve and the Johns raised their hands. Then Casey took each of us aside and took our photo with our attribute card—yet another brand we could call our own.
There was still a mountain to climb, and I was genuinely excited. My tent-mate, Noal, was too. Before Danner hired him, he had worked at REI and rock-climbing gyms, and yet somehow had never climbed a mountain. His passion, he liked to say, was customer service, not the outdoors. Still, he wasn’t going to let a career’s worth of relevant skills and knowledge go to waste.
Noal didn’t sleep at all the night before the climb. We had gone to bed at 7:30 and rose at 1 a.m. so we could set out when the snow was firmest. We unpeeled our sleeping bags as the wind cracked against our tent. It was somehow 2:30 by the time we all dressed, ate, and roped in. I was the anchor on a rope team led by Matt, with Casey and John from Portland in between us. Larry’s team set off first, and we followed. Each hiker wore a headlamp, and we ran like a string of Christmas lights up the mountain.
The stars punched through the darkness. The only constellation I could recognize was the Big Dipper, which lived up to its name. It actually dipped behind the first slope as we climbed it. Stargazing, though, was risky: It was easy to trip with rope and crampons, and you had to keep your eyes on the ground for the footpath of the men before you.
Left foot, right foot, left foot right foot. If Mount Baker had anything to teach us about being men, this was a good place to start. Portland John observed this the previous day, as we trained. “I’m paying at attention to all the things I don’t pay attention to at home,” he told the camera. “Putting one foot in front of another.”
Left foot, right foot. I started to sing the words to myself with each step. Growing confident, I accented their rhythm with my ice ax and trekking pole: ice ax, left foot, walking pole, right foot. As long as I sustained the rhythm, I was succeeding. An interruption meant that I had misstepped or maybe slipped.
Or that Casey was taking a photo. At 4:30, the sun began to rise, making visible the scenery through which we slogged. Don’t get me wrong: It was spectacular. Mountain ranges hemmed the horizon; and blue ice peeked through the snow, as though the glacier were keeping an eye on us. But as the day brightened, the scenery became an outright nuisance. We had planned to stop every hour to rehydrate and replenish, but Casey asked us to stop every 20 or 30 minutes so he could take photos.
The previous night, I had chosen “tranquility” as my sixth card. Maybe I should have put it first. We had been climbing for hours, and the summit hardly seemed any closer. The glacier hid its size in flats and folds. Because of the foreshortening effect, each step forward seemed to place us further from the top. Hikers who had passed us in the darkness were now fleas on the summit’s scalp. And every scenic pass slowed us even further as we waited for Casey to photograph it.
I was cranky, in part, because my right hip and left ankle both ached. I was used to expending my energy in 60-minute bursts at the gym. But here I meted it out over hours, one step at a time. As my impatience grew, it became more difficult to concentrate on my footsteps. Still, there was nothing to do but keep walking. Around 7 a.m., the air sharpened with a sulfurous stench. The stink was so pure that it was almost refreshing. It meant we were near the crater.
But the crater was not, as I had imagined, the summit. It was at 9,800 feet—still another 1,000 feet to go. We rested on its lip in the crumbling, yellow dirt. A plume of steam rose behind us. It was 7:30 a.m.—the time at which we had hoped to reach the summit. “We’re doing fine,” Larry reassured us. Then it was time for the final push.
“Casey, we’re gonna stop with the shots until we reach the summit,” Matt said.
We fastened our ropes and set off at a 45-degree angle across the face of the final slope. When we reached the far edge, we switched back. It was only a few hundred more feet, but it took us ages to traverse it. Then we walked across a long flat and up a small slope to the summit: 10,781 feet.
It was 9:20. We exchanged the comprehensive gesture of manly congratulations: a hand slap into a handshake into a chest bump into a hug. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Casey said. It would be even harder on the way back down. If any of Cheever’s “mysterious rites of virility” survived, maybe it was just this: exertion and exhaustion, the reduction of conscience to a few repeated movements performed in tandem with other men.
I had my notebook, but the pages from the summit are barren. The first day, at the campsite, Portland John asked me, “What’s your hook?” Then he suggested one in jest: “As I gripped the rock, I looked back on the steps that led me here.”
Prior to the trip, I had actually imagined words along those lines. But now that I had reached the summit, I had no energy for reflection. It was not a vantage point on life (or on manhood). It was something better: a place to rest my legs.
Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic. Follow him at @bencrair.