By Anthony Marra
Having just heard about Kyle’s and Scott’s passing on the Ogre II, I was reading through articles and stories of the duo. I’d only been in Salt Lake City for two years, but the impact it had on the climbing community could be felt. It was around this time that I stumbled upon a video that would change my life. Kyle’s The Road from Karakol was so powerful, I felt like he was speaking directly to me. I could almost feel the same emotions he was experiencing, I wanted THAT experience. In addition, Kyle’s experience inspired confidence in taking the path less traveled, doing something completely ‘out there’. Fast forward a few months, I was at the Canadian border with a bicycle, skis and my climbing equipment. I had the idea to bike to Mexico while climbing and skiing the Cascade Range volcanoes and peaks in the Sierras. The three months that followed were pure freedom and unique adventure, I embraced every moment. Even losing half my gear to a southern California black bear and ultimately my trusty steed to a bike theft in San Diego was slightly hilarious. I was hooked on what Kyle perfectly described as ‘Unpolished Adventure’. Eventually all good things come to an end and I was back at my 9-5 engineering job in Salt Lake City, miserable and bored. I felt like I had really had my first ‘true’ adventure and I couldn’t get the feeling out of me. I started planning more trips, a four-week volcano tour in Mexico, two months in the Coast range, Rockies, Alaska Range, and Brooks Range…. Despite the intensity involved, these trips felt strangely polished. I felt slightly detached from my environment. I was always in a vehicle or a plane and surrounded by my climbing partners. I knew what was missing, the human powered and solo element that Kyle loved and promoted.
I started spending way too much time on Google Earth at work, looking at different countries around the world. Somehow my job never discovered that I spent approximately 1 hour per day working and 7 hours traveling the world via Google. New Zealand was a country that kept popping up in my head, mainly due to the proximity of the mountains to the oceans. I thought it would be epic to combine cycling, skiing, surfing, and climbing into one human powered mega trip. Kyle would be stoked. Coincidentally I heard the Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award was accepting applications and I applied that day. I knew my chances were slim as Kyle inspired thousands of people and I had never been remotely close to receiving any type of award in my life. I eventually brushed the trip aside and went back to my daily life of working and ‘weekend warrioring’.
As the routine crept back into my life, the excuses started popping up. I can’t go to New Zealand, what am I going to do about my job? Health Insurance? My van? My future retirement? There is no way I can make it happen, it’s too crazy. These were normal doubts and questions, easily solved. But, how would I ever be able to carry 150 pounds of gear on a bicycle? I easily set the trip to the back of my mind, telling myself it would happen sometime in the next few years, maybe, but probably not. While I was in Mexico, I started getting texts from my friends ‘Congrats dude! Looks like you’re going to New Zealand!’. Shit. I really did it this time. Of course, this meant I could throw all my excuses out the window, there was no question. My job, possessions and excuses didn’t stand a chance. This trip was now about the Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award and continuing his legacy and spirit.
I had one month to prepare. I became ‘that guy’ biking up Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon, two steep and dense-in-traffic roads up some of Utah’s most challenging grades with my surfboard and skis. I spent my evenings planning, packing and repacking. Figuring out how to compress everything for 4 months of climbing, skiing, and surfing into 4 bicycle bags, a trailer and a backpack was a true test of my packing and planning skills.
I arrived in the country just a few days before winter was ‘over’. New Zealand is a long country broken up into two very distinctive islands. The north island is tropical, hilly (probably an understatement), and has two snowy volcanoes. I would classify the North Island as Hawaii with a winter season. The South Island is much more rugged, remote, and harsh (think Canadian Rockies on a Pacific Island and you’ll understand what harsh means in this context).
My adventures on the North Island lasted about a month and was where I struggled and learned the most. It rained nearly every day and winter seemed to never really end. There were a few spectacular days, but I was mostly occupied with being extremely uncomfortable and miserable. Sleeping under bridges, picnic tables, and calling my mom were a common theme. A question I struggled to answer was ‘why am I struggling so much on just a simple bike ride?’. Finally, I came to the realization that I just had the wrong mindset. If I wanted to thrive, I needed to be positive and take everything as an experience I can learn from. That’s what Kyle would have done. From there, the outlook on my North Island experience really changed. I stopped frequently at beaches to try surfing and although I failed miserably, it was hilarious and fun. Thanks to this attitude, I was stoked on carrying a surfboard for over 3000 miles even if I couldn’t ride a 3-foot wave.
Pushing my bike was a common theme on the North Island. Weighing in at a featherweight 150 pounds and moving at a rocket speed of 6 miles per hour, I had the brilliant idea that biking on the beach and gravel roads for hundreds of miles would be ‘fun’. Pushing my bike for most of the distance was the furthest from fun I could ever imagine. To make matters worse, I learned the hard lesson that sand and wheel bearings do not mix.
The beach biking had shredded the bearings in my trailer, leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere and unhappy. Thankfully, I was rescued by two Maori women who became my ‘trail angels’. They took me where I needed to go in order to get my bike fixed and drove hours out of their way just to be part of the journey through assistance. I was incredibly grateful for their hospitality and was always blown away by the friendliness of the Maori and Kiwi people.
With a broken bike trailer and weeks away from any real climbing or skiing, I realized a second thing needed to change: My one-track mindset. I needed to become more flexible and accept my situation, to not be so concerned about the destination, but by the adventure and randomness. It’s funny how these little lessons present themselves through failure and hardships. I started deviating from the highway and my original path, accepting whatever situation presented itself. With a fresh mindset, I managed to convince a random British guy to go on a three-day Kayak trip with me down the spectacular Wanganui river.
The kayak journey conveniently put me in close proximity to my first ski mountaineering adventure. It had been nearly two weeks and I was finally getting a glimpse of snow, ice and a true mountain. There are two major volcanoes on the North Island and this one was called Ruapehu. With plenty of mountaineers gunning for the summit, I was surprised to be the only skier, happy to enjoy some steep turns off the peak. Skiing above a boiling caldera was pretty entertaining as the consequences for falling, such as being boiled like a human lobster, are unique. Skiing back to my bike felt satisfying and straightforward. I thought I was back on track to an easy trip, but it wasn’t soon after that all structure to my journey quickly collapsed.
The turning point was my first junction of the trip. One way went on a very straightforward highway to the next peak, it would’ve taken me roughly 1-2 days to complete. The other choice was a 150-mile gravel road called the ‘Forgotten World Highway’. People told me I would be insane to try it with my rig. Thinking to myself ‘this trip is all about adventure, what would Kyle do?’ I already knew the answer. The next three days were utter chaos. I pushed my bike for at least half the distance. I hit a goat with my bike, was rained on for 13 hours, slept under more bridges and crashed more times than I would have liked. Despite being uncomfortable and wet, I had a smile on my face for three days straight, I was stoked to be in this country with nothing but a bicycle and my tools of fun. I was completely absorbed in the moment.
Finally escaping the Forgotten World Highway, I was rewarded with beautiful views of Mount Taranaki and a nice weather window. I was terrified skiing off the summit of this volcano but made it down safely and managed to bike back to the ocean and surf in the same day. Where else can you combine skiing, surfing, mountaineering, and cycling in a single day? I was really falling in love with the country.
A few more days on the bicycle and I was finished with the rainy and hilly North Island. I knew the South Island would be the true test of my skills and determination, and I couldn’t wait for the beauty that lay ahead. Somehow, I managed to restrain from tossing my surfboard into the ocean on the ferry ride across the Cook Strait.
It’s difficult to go into detail about the time spent on the South Island. There were major moments of self-doubt, but realizing the trip was about something deeper and not about climbing had really helped me come to terms with my failures. While things certainly did not work out as planned, I felt I had truly experienced the meaning of what the Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award was about – raw adventure and experiences that can only be found through that medium.
In total, I spent three months on the South Island and one month on the North Island. I had biked an entire country with my skis, surfboard and climbing gear. With a car and helicopter access, this trip would have taken two months and been perfectly executed. It would have been a ‘vacation’. While it wasn’t as linear or ‘successful’ as I had originally anticipated, my idea of success had completely changed, and I was blown away after looking back on the journey. Serendipitous moments and valuable memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life were created thanks to the aspect of human powered adventure and following the spirit of Kyle.
Reaching the end of the country was anti-climactic, as it was no longer about the goal or the destination. It was now just the furthest place I could ride my bicycle. I realized what it was about all-along: It was about self-discovery and the memories that were formed within two arbitrary points on a map. The destinations and objectives were only seen as boundaries in the end, the boundaries and limits of adventure. Only when ignoring these limits and focusing on absorbing the overall experience, was the meaning of the journey truly able to be discovered. I had finally achieved a moment of acceptance and clarity: “Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil and the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place, and by its people…. You no longer know where you end and where the world begins. We become raw. This is why we take the trip. This is what we come for.”