The Creativity in Human-Powered Adventure

The popularity of human-powered pursuits is on the rise, and with it comes an enormous potential source of creativity.

Photo Courtesy Steve Fassbinder

By Max Owens

When Steve Fassbinder plans a trip, he takes pains to find the blankest spot on the map and heads directly there. No trails? No problem. No record of anyone going there before? Fine. Obstacles with trip-ruining potential, like raging rivers or overhanging cliffs? So much the better, as these obstacles afford Fassbinder—who is known to friends simply as “Doom,”— the chance to get creative.

Fassbinder, who is best-known for his ambitious and suffer-heavy bikepacking trips, has seen many of the world’s most remote spots from the seat of a bike (and, increasingly, from inside a small, inflatable packraft). He has pushed a fatbike up grueling mountain passes in Pakistan, floated ephemeral streams deep in the backcountry of the desert Southwest, and rolled through the high valleys of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan. Trips that offer the potential to explore new terrain under his own power are the ones that, in his words, really get him going.

Fassbinder’s version of adventure—that is, the kind that is powered by one’s own legs and not some kind of motor—is on the rise, and I think this is one of the most positive trends in the outdoor recreation world in recent years. Human-powered adventure is simple, rewarding and opens the door for unlimited creativity.

Steve “Doom” Fassbinder knows the reward of human-powered travel is worth the effort. Courtesy Steve Fassbinder.

The rise of human-powered adventure
In recent days, said Adin Baird of Left of Creek Media, “there has been a massive increase in human-powered pursuits.” To name a few examples, the popularity of uphill and backcountry skiing, mountain running, and bikepacking has surged enormously in recent years. If you need more evidence, look no further than the film lineups of recent adventure film festivals, which are heavily weighted towards lower-impact adventure. Skiers are strapping their skis to bikes and pedaling to the mountains. Climbers are forgoing their vehicles and loading their gear into panniers. Baird is producing and co-directing a forthcoming video series about human-powered adventures, called Ride to Zero, the first of which profiles several women who bike between various BASE jump exits. (Look out for Jump to Zero, to be released later this spring.)

People are catching onto the fact that human-powered travel, in addition to being easier on the environment, just feels good. Sure, there’s the physical challenge aspect of it, but there’s more to it than that, as Fassbinder explained. “I think people are looking to be challenged, but to be self-reliant as well,” he said. He added that unlike a vehicle, a bike is relatively simple and most problems are fixable in the field.

This is my own conjecture, but the rise in popularity of human-powered adventure could be a reaction to a world of adventure that, because of technological leaps and bounds, has become relatively cushy. On the other hand, human-powered adventure is no doubt fueled by advances in technology—Baird pointed out that people now have more tools than ever to bolster their self-reliance, including “better gear, more knowledge, and easier access to education.”

Some days are harder than others. Ride to Zero is a forthcoming video series chronicling human-powered adventures, such as this bike-to-ski mission in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado. Photo Will McKay.

Human-powered adventure and creativity
I like to think about creativity as the result of shrugging off the idea that things must be done the way they’ve always been done, and human-powered adventure offers a bottomless supply of potential innovation. A prime example is the emergence of “bikerafting”—combining bike travel with water travel on a small, portable packraft. To the uninitiated, it seems absurd. You just don’t put bikes on rafts. But to people like Fassbinder (an early adopter of bikerafting) it’s an elegant, creative solution. Rivers that he once regarded as uncrossable boundaries became modes of transport into previously inaccessible terrain, which is exactly where he wants to be.

Mountaineering is another appropriate example. Though ethics and acceptable style have changed considerably over the centuries that we’ve been trying to get on top of tall peaks, the general idea has remained the same: get in, climb the thing, and get out. For Anthony Marra, a climber and skier from Salt Lake City, that sort of mentality did not allow for the fullness of adventure that he sought. Last year he “approached” Manaslu (the eighth highest mountain in the world at 8163 meters) by way of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan, on his bicycle. Ask most climbers if carrying all their gear for an 8000-meter peak on a bike for four months sounds like a good strategy, and they’ll probably laugh at you.

Marra was successful in his attempt to ski off of Manaslu, solo and without supplemental oxygen. His success was due in large part to the creation of a trip plan that was based not on how things are “normally done,” but on what he imagined to be possible based on his own previous experiences.

Of course, trips in which everything is carried on your back or your bike necessitate compromises, which Marra said was “creative in a weird sort of way… it’s creative in terms of solutions.” For example, he decided to bring his smaller +20-degree sleeping bag rather than a much warmer, bulkier bag to save space. He then adapted his entire climbing strategy so that he slept lower on the mountain (where it wasn’t prohibitively cold) and put in more vertical on climbing days. Fassbinder summed up this approach best: “You look at things that are in your way, but there’s creative ways to get around those things.”

The journey is the reward
It should be obvious that if our only goals are infinite pow turns or unlimited downhill singletrack, then yeah, we’ll probably want to ride the chairlift or take the car shuttle to the top of the trail. With fully human-powered adventure, though, the focus is shifted from the ultimate objective to the journey to get there. Clichéd, yes, but true: The journey becomes its own reward. And in a very real sense, a grueling journey can be a source of much physical and mental growth. Marra, for example, was incredibly acclimated and fit after months of biking through central Asia, not to mention mentally strong after successful ski descents on two 7000-meter peaks along the way. He described human-powered adventure as the perfect metaphor for life: “You can’t run away from the rain; you can’t run away from the headwind. You have to deal with it, and be positive about it.”

In my own experience with human-powered adventure, the reward lies in a deeper understanding of both myself and, just as importantly, the land through which I’m moving. As outdoor enthusiasts, we care about the earth and are aware that the future of our favorite spots depends on good stewardship and avoiding environmental degradation. We’re also likely aware of the environmental costs of being a skier, biker or climber in the first place, which Baird called “the ever-present contradiction of outdoor recreation.” Driving six hours each way to the desert for a weekend of cragging or biking isn’t cheap in terms of carbon consumption, and neither are our garages full of shiny gear. But incorporating a little more human power into our lives will make a difference. Maybe that means changing our epic summer road trip plan into an even more epic bike tour. Or, it could mean walking or biking, rather than driving, to the grocery store a little more often.

Here’s the thing: The number of people that have the time and ability to embark on a weeks-long human-powered sufferfest à la Fassbinder or Marra is small. But those enormous adventures pale in comparison to the collective benefit that tiny human-powered trips close to home can have. Baird said, “If people take the time to commute on bike, walk, or take the bus to their gym, local crag, or trailhead, that’s what matters. It’s the little trips in the car that add up.” I would add that there is fertile ground for people interested in something in the middle—backyard adventures that are just as ambitious as forays deep into the backcountry. My favorite example is ultrarunner Rickey Gates’s Every Single Street project, in which he ran every street in San Francisco, totalling 1100 miles over 45 days.

We can truly amaze ourselves with the creativity that emerges when we’re forced to think of how we can power our adventures locally. Right now, we have ample opportunity to try that out as we stay close to home in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. True, not everyone has the good fortune to live within walking or biking distance of a ski slope, crag or trailhead. But there is exploration to be had in our backyards no matter where we are. If we can’t find it… well, we just need to get a little more creative.

Max is a writer and 2019 ROAM Awards Essay Winner. Down to Bedrock is a new column here at Roam that explores innovation in outdoor adventure. Follow Max on Instagram @maxoutside.