from the Winter 2008 issue of
Pomona College Magazine
by Ajay Singh

If Grayson Schaffer ’01 didn’t write for a living, he might never have coined the term “the forgotten arm” to refer to an obscure and storm-swept inlet that pokes deep into Chilean Patagonia’s southern ice cap. And if he didn’t love the outdoors, Schaffer wouldn’t have dared venture there.

Peel Inlet has a notorious Andean history of dashing explorers’ dreams—blizzards often send sail boats scurrying back, their captains’ heads hung in defeat. That of course makes this part of the world all the more alluring to adventurers, especially if they happen to be journalists like Schaffer, who is an editor for Outside, one of the world’s premier outdoors magazines.

Explorers almost always know what they’re getting into and it’s seldom glamorous. Schaffer spent much of the time hacking through glacial ice in an arguably foolhardy attempt to kayak down some pristine but forbidding fjord.

Accompanying him was Reg Lake, a highly regarded 64-year-old river runner who had been turned back on the same route in 2004 because of storms. Together, Schaffer and Lake were among a handful of modern-day adventurers to paddle to that forgotten arm of Peel Inlet and back—and Schaffer has recorded that event in a feature article in the December 2007 issue of Outside.

Because Schaffer is a writer who also takes photos (a skill he honed while shooting for PCM, eventually landing a photography internship with National Geographic Adventure magazine), he is regularly assigned to chronicle off-trail trips around the world. Over the four years he has worked for Outside, he has been sent out with top-notch athletes to document everything from hair-raising skiing trips to mountain biking in the Rockies—and three memorable expeditions revolving around his first love: kayaking.

A fly-fisher in his youth, Schaffer has been drawn to rivers since he was 15. But you have to wonder how someone who spends most of his time making phone calls and sitting in meetings at Outside’s editorial headquarters in Santa Fe, N.M., is capable of such demanding feats.

“It’s not easy,” says Schaffer. “I’m at a double disadvantage, going from my desk trying to keep up with people who are world-class athletes.” He is, he readily admits, “not nearly as talented as they are.”

Being aware of his physical limits is a constant challenge for Schaffer. Often tempted to go down 50-foot waterfalls, he realizes only too well he’s not built for that kind of punishment (about 30 feet is his limit.) On the contrary, says Schaffer, “usually I know when to start walking.”

Kayaking is known for focusing the mind like few other sports, but every trip has the potential to go horribly awry. During a four-member expedition in Madagascar in 2004, Schaffer was swept off his kayak and instantly forced to confront the distressing options of abandoning the trip or endangering his life by swimming across a narrow gorge to retrieve the boat.

Schaffer got the boat—and the story—returning to Santa Fe in triumph. But the misadventure scared him, while teaching him one of many valuable lessons. Schaffer alludes to it toward the end of his Outside article by quoting from one of Lake’s pet truisms: “Adventure is just another word for poor planning.”

Whether waiting for equipment that fails to arrive on the plane or being stranded after sunset in extreme elements, there’s only one way to prepare for the hardships inevitable in such quests. And that, as Schaffer puts it, is to “pretty much always have a Plan B.”

Much of Schaffer’s own Plan B is trying to stay in good shape—he’s constantly hiking, skiing and cycling on his own time. That way, when disaster strikes he can bail out, carry his boat and meet up with his more athletic buddies in the safety of the shore. Proper planning serves another vital aim of Schaffer’s: It ensures that he returns from each trip with photos stunning enough to merit a story in the magazine said to have launched the writing career of mountaineer Jon Krakauer of Into Thin Air fame.

For Schaffer, getting the shot sometimes requires climbing high on a rock to find the right angle. “A lot of it is just photojournalism—a sense of taste and a sense of the scene you are trying to frame,” he says. More often than not, taking good pictures requires “a constant anticipation of heightened moments”—kayak-speak for a photographer’s knack for capturing situations before they disappear downstream.

For every great photograph that he gets, Schaffer probably misses several. But that’s okay with him. “If you can get two or three or five great pictures,” says the writer, “then you’ve got the story.”

What he tries very hard to do is not risk his own safety or have anyone else do something for the camera they would not normally do. “If somebody gets killed, it’s a big mess,” he says, adding: “It’s a long walk to get out of wherever you are, not to mention the emotional hardships.”

Schaffer’s adventures have so completely taken over his life that he can no longer separate them from his journalism. The symbiosis is most stimulating. “One of the things that refreshes me when I come back to work,” he muses, “is the idea that I’ve got a different perspective on life.”

For this tough, quiet man work and play are two sides of the same coin, a rarity by any standard. “This idea of looking for far-off fun places to go and come back with interesting stories,” says Schaffer, “that is all I can think about.”