Ask an expert: Tim Cahill on adventure writing

Tim Cahill dangled on the rope, about halfway into the pitch-black 500-foot-deep cave. The only light came from his headlamp, but he hung so far from the cave wall, it only illuminated the steam rising from his body in the chilly air. As the rope slowly started to spin, Cahill had one thought: how would he best describe this to his readers?
Cahill grew up in Wisconsin and became a competitive swimmer, so he didn’t have time to learn to ski or hike. It wasn’t until he started writing about outdoor adventure that Cahill began mastering the skills needed for assignments that have taken him up technical rock faces, to the tops of remote mountain peaks and below the surface diving and caving. The prolific adventure writer and founder of Outside magazine shared some tips of the trade — which in his case includes survival skills as well as reporting across cultures in swamps, deserts and even jungle treehouses.
What’s one of the most memorable assignments you’ve had and why?
We contacted a group of people called the Korowai. They hadn’t seen people from the outside. It was like travelling back in time. You could actually see people living a Stone Age existence and imagine that your ancestors, your very ancient ancestors, lived a great deal like them.
These people did not want to be contacted by the outside world, so they lived far into the swamp off the river … and they lived in trees about 50 feet up. I found out very quickly why that was the case, because down below there were swarms and swarms of mosquitoes.
They eventually let us climb up to their tree and their treehouse. They had arranged a lot of stones that they carried up, and they could have a fire on these stones because the treehouse was just kind of like a wooden deck spread across these trees.
They fed us. They didn’t have much, but that was what they wanted to do. So we decided that we would feed them. So we made some rice for these folks and put some salt and pepper and a squeeze from one of those plastic lemon bottles and gave it to them. One of the young men was eating it. There were tears running down his face, and I thought, “Oh, now what did I do?” What it turned out through the three different levels of translation was he’d never eaten anything so good in his life. And he was just crying for the joy of eating that rice.
Adventures like that are huge. How do you pick which details to include?
It’s all in service to the story. I did a story once where my next door neighbor was an Episcopal priest. He was not much of an adventurer really, he wasn’t particularly in good shape, but his great desire, one bucket list thing was to climb the Grand, the Grand Teton. And he asked me if I would go. So I took him to the mountain and we got a guide and climbed the mountain and made it to the top. Now I’m sure that my priest friend was utterly exhausted, and yet he said a prayer on top of the mountain. It was a very pretty prayer for all the people that couldn’t be there for reasons of physical challenges. And he prayed for most kinds of people and he blessed us on the mountain and although he was utterly exhausted, the real story was that prayer on top of that mountain and that kind of exaltation. So the feeling of great happiness and blessedness was what I emphasized, and not his obvious exhaustion. That’s how you pick things for the story.
How do you approach and write about the people you encounter?
We make sense out of the world through the vehicle of story, so I want find out what their story is. I want them to tell me stories of their life. I ask them some questions and they’ll give me some answers, and when I get an answer that reminds me of something that happened in my life, I’ll give them a quick story. The world over, you tell somebody a story, it’s likely that they will respond with another story, and that’s the way I work with people.
How do you balance being a writer and an adventurer?
I don’t. I’m a writer. I wrote about adventure because it was a subject that seemed to come more easily to me than certain other things might be.
Most of the places I go, there’s not going to be electricity … I take notes in a reporter’s notebook. I typically fill up about three notebooks … which I carry with me generally in my back pocket — and if it’s going to be wet you need Ziploc bags — and then I translate it to the big notebook, and I actually start writing. Occasionally some things that I wrote in the field in the big notebook have gone almost word-for-word into the finished story. It’s amazing. But you have to take notes on literally everything.
You’ve mentioned self-deprecation as a writing tool. Can you talk a little more about that?
I tried at all costs to avoid gratuitous chest-beating. I would mention the mistakes that I made, and that’s often an opportunity for humor. But it also was a situation in which the subtext in my stories — at least I hope — in (the) reader’s mind might be something like this, “Well, gee, Tim climbed that mountain. If that clown can do it, so can I.” So I use self-deprecation as a tool to encourage the reader to take on various challenges, and I think that’s why a lot of my stories were very popular.
How do you work in first-person experience without making the story about you?
You’re taking the reader on a trip. You’re showing the reader what you saw and they are following you. You don’t necessarily have to say, “And then I felt this way.” If you tell the story properly, it will make them feel what you felt. You take me as the reader by the hand and introduce me slowly to all the things that make this topic exciting to you.
If you’re telling a story, people want to find out how it ends. Often I will go on a quest and sometimes, I don’t succeed in doing what I’m trying to do. It turns out that failure’s as good a story as success. If you do what I’ve done for so many years, you begin to know that the obstacles you have to overcome in order to do your work, that’s not only part of the job, it’s going to be a good part of the story. The more things went wrong, the more I would say, “Yes! Yes, this story is forming.” That’s the dirty little secret of adventure writing: Something’s gotta go wrong.
Would you say there’s a connection between adventure writing and being an outdoors advocate?
I don’t write about issues. I don’t write argumentative essays. I write stories about a place in such a way that I hope that the reader says, “I want to go there, I want to experience this.” What I want to do is get them to love the place as I do. I take them by the hand and show them what I saw, and I would like to think that I’m enlisting them in what I call a gentle conspiracy of caring. Sometimes I’m criticized … for exposing these wonderful, hidden, remote places. My response to that has always been: there’s not a place on Earth that is not coveted by some timbering company, some petrochemical company, some land developer of some sort. The more people that have climbed the mountain or descended the river or climbed the trail, the more people that are personally invested in the place and personally invested in keeping it that way.
Is there a moment when you’ve really been scared for your life?
I fell off a cliff in Queen Charlotte Islands, and I realized that I’d hurt myself pretty badly and I was bleeding pretty badly. So I ripped up some cloth from my shirt and bandaged up my head where I was bleeding. I was by myself, and I tried to walk back to our camp. Because I was so banged up, I wasn’t able to walk through the forest very well. It was a kayaking trip. I got to get down to the shore. (I thought), “What I’ll do is get some sticks and wood, get out onto a promontory and build a fire. It’s going to get dark soon, and these folks are going to be looking for me in the kayaks, and they’ll see the fire.” Indeed that’s what happened. And that’s another one that I was medivaced out of. But at no point was I scared. You just do what you have to do.
Panic is something that can happen to you that can kill you. But if you know what to do, you can say, “Well I gotta do this.” That’s what goes through your mind. Fear … really doesn’t enter into the equation because you don’t have time to think about it.
There’s an old expression: It’s not an adventure while it’s happening. You only realize it was an adventure afterwards, when you think about it. ♦
— Katy Spence is an OWAA intern and journalism graduate student at the University of Montana. She enjoys new recipes, new places and old souls.

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