James Mills is a chronicler of outdoor recreation and the environment. His 2014 book The Adventure Gap profiles African American outdoor enthusiasts and reports on the first all-African American ascent of Denali. He’s been a guide and outfitter and participated in everything from mountain climbing to backcountry skiing. Yet Mills, who lives in Madison, says that he makes it a point “to avoid drama. People assume that those who do what might be considered adventure are implicitly putting themselves in danger. I don’t think that’s true.”
He acknowledges the element of risk is exactly the point of an “epic adventure” for some, but feels that many times these exploits happen because people are reckless.
Nonetheless, Mills has found himself in dicey situations. “I was on a rope team when one of our partners fell into a crevasse. I was at the Grand Canyon and in the middle of the class 4 rapids, one of our oars broke. My wife and I went climbing for the first time and we had to do a rappel in the dark in the middle of an electrical storm.”
These things happen, says Mills, but he objects to the “look-at-how-brave-and-tough-I-am” school of adventure storytelling: “Back in 2013, I got a casting call to be in the Discovery Channel show Naked and Afraid, and I turned them down. It was clear to me they were deliberately trying to make adventure more dangerous than it actually is.” Mills worries that shows like that and Bear Grylls’ Man vs. Wild“dissuade the average person from doing something as simple as going on a high-altitude hike. Because they don’t want to be on the wrong end of a bad situation, like a bear attack.”
Mills prefers to remember the first time he saw an unobstructed night sky, on San Bernardino Peak in Southern California. “I was probably about 14 or 15. We had made a long, very arduous hike. It was a very clear night. We’re in our sleeping bags, and I rolled over and looked up, and the sky was so thick with stars it was almost white. It was one of those clear views of the Milky Way you never get to see because of the light pollution in the city. I could actually see satellites and more shooting stars than I have ever seen in my entire life at one time.”
At that altitude, over 10,000 feet, “the clouds were actually below us,” says Mills. “When dawn came, you could see all the other mountain tops also above the clouds. They looked like a series of islands, floating on a sea of white clouds.”
On a hike like this, as Mills describes it, “You can actually climb out of the distractions of life.” At high altitudes, where the atmosphere is thinner, visibility is enhanced. “What oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere do to protect us from solar radiation also prevents the beauty of stars from peeking through sometimes. Light and air, two things that are critical for human survival, can actually obstruct some of your ability to see things,” says Mills. “There’s something to be said for having an experience that makes that kind of thing possible.”