APRIL FOOLS: Wildnerness navigating to the extreme


Man embodies an inextricable dichotomy: the need to be one with nature while simultaneously needing to best it. To overcome that which we came from. To show nature that, sure, you might have made me, but I have since mounted you.

Think of extreme mountain climbing, its participants always looking for the next seemingly insurmountable peak or a more severe traverse over that which has already been bested. Think of extreme base jumping, extreme spelunking, extreme rappelling; the athletes in these sports constantly search for the next hurdle, the next death-defying accomplishment, the next opportunity to stare Death in the eye and, unflinching, say, “Gotcha, bitch.”

Then there’s extreme orienteering.

Orienteering is the sport of navigation with map and compass. The object is to reach a series of points shown on the map, choosing routes both on and off a trail, that will lead to all the required points and the finish in the shortest time. The points on a course, called “controls,” are marked with flags and punch sheets or interactive electronic devices so contestants can prove they’ve been there. Each control marker is on a distinct feature, such as a river junction or the top of a hill.

Just as mountain climbing, base jumping, spelunking and rappelling all have their big names, their most decorated of challengers, so too does extreme orienteering. Meet Johnny Summit.

Summit set an age record in orienteering at age three, beating the previous record of youth competition by almost 11 years. “I would have beaten it by more, too,” he says, clenching his chiseled jaw. “I was reading compasses and maps when I was two, but my parents thought that was too young to enter the competitive stream.”

Summit, who hails from just outside of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, was the first Canadian to win the World Orienteering Championships back in 2002. He was nine. After successfully defending his title five years in a row, Summit retired from the sport. “You know when you’re doing that thing you love, that thing that takes you to your limit,” he says wistfully, “and there’s that persistent voice in your head that tells you to keep going, to find that limit and push past?” He pauses, smiles and leans back. “I never felt that.”

When he retired in 2007 to the shock of the international orienteering community, Summit wrote and posted a blog on the international orienteering website that proposed extreme orienteering, claiming basic orienteering didn’t ask enough of its athletes.

“It’s orienteering on crank,” says Summit.

While the rules of extreme orienteering are basically the same as those of its moderate predecessor, its administration is much more . . extreme.

“First off, you weigh in four days before the competition begins,” says Summit. “Then you weigh in again two hours before. If you haven’t lost at least 15 pounds, you’re disqualified.”

This extreme weight loss is achieved primarily through sweating. Summit wraps himself in a down sleeping bag and sits in a stifling sauna, sometimes for 10 hours at a time.

After the second weigh-in, participants are permitted 50 millilitres of water before the race starts. Then, for the duration of the competition, participants can eat or drink whatever they want, so long as it comes from land on which the race takes place. “Think about it,” says Summit. “Our ancestors didn’t have water from a tap. They couldn’t just turn to Tim Hortons when they were hungry. They lived off the land — while exploring, no less — and that’s what extreme orienteering is all about.”

The average extreme orienteering course spans 270 kilometres, and usually covers a 60 to 70 000-foot elevation change. “Sometimes three or four weeks, no question,” Summit says of the time required to complete a course.

Another modification of regular orienteering is that the control markers are all located in the upper branches of trees, usually sequoia, Western redcedar or old-growth Douglas fir, because those are generally the tallest around, according to Summit. He says participants may access the markers in whatever way they can find, so long as it’s only using the nature around them. He advises challengers to let their fingernails and toenails run rampant for at least six months beforehand.

Extreme challengers must abide by a specific dress code: loin-cloths. “It’s called extreme for a reason,” says Summit.

As of January 2013, Summit was the only registered extreme orienteer in Canada — one of four in the world. “Two are from Greenland, and the other is from somewhere in Australia,” says Summit. “Somewhere in the outback, I think.” He says the other three registrants have yet to compete.

“There hasn’t yet been a formal competition,” he admits. “But this thing is on the cusp of taking off.”


Since this interview took place, Summit has been banned from posting anything else on the international orienteering website due to, as the site’s moderators call it, his “extreme spamming.” You can find out about Summit’s personal best times in the extreme orienteering courses he has designed, as well as learn about his fingernail strengthening techniques, at extremeorienteering.org.