A modern mountain odyssey generated by ChatGPT.


I never thought too much about how I might die, but as I prepared to lean the weight of my body off the edge of a 3,000-foot cliff rear first, it occurred to me that this wasn’t how I would’ve imagined it. Just minutes before, I’d been grinning ear-to-ear and lounging luxuriously in the August sun with my two friends, Charlie and Kyle, as we congratulated each other on a successful five-pitch trad climb in Montana’s rugged Beartooth Mountains. Now I was literally teetering on the edge of life and death, and the only person—or thing—I had to blame was a robot. That’s right. This was all because of ChatGPT.

This all started last summer, when Charlie asked me to join him and his friend Kyle on an adventurous weekend in the Beartooths. It was a layered invitation, though, because what I would later learn is that this three-day trip had been designed by ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence computer program “that talks like a human and helps you with all sorts of things,” according to the bot itself. Charlie, a Bozeman-based photographer, had prompted ChatGPT to lead us on an adventure weekend “worthy of being published.”

“Sure,” I had said when Charlie explained this. “Why not?”

In the coming weeks, Charlie revealed ChatGPT’s detailed itinerary. The AI model had not only determined our activities, but also where and when they would take place; it had even developed uniquely strict meal plans to be followed by each of us for the entire weekend. Our trip would span three solid days and would include mountain biking, gravel biking, fly fishing and an epic five-pitch trad climb. While we would all partake in the same activities, the AI-generated meal plans would be custom.

Charlie, a thin, bespectacled artist, would be eating such delicacies as gourmet salmon wraps, charcuterie boards and quinoa salads. Kyle, a tall and hiply mustachioed Bozeman native, would be eating similarly but sans pork to appease his own dietary restrictions. I, on the other hand, an incredibly handsome and intelligent construction worker, was prescribed mac n’ cheese, pre-packaged BBQ chicken and PB&Js, in addition to a startling amount of Mountain Dew Code Red. While the others laughed at my “child-like” menu for the weekend, I was unabashedly satisfied with the arrangement. A lifetime of gas station breakfasts and energy drinks while working in construction had perfectly prepared my body for this.

As comfortable as I was with my meal plan, I was equally uncomfortable with the itinerary. Although I’m a finely tuned endurance machine, I’m not even a remotely competent climber, and I hadn’t been on a mountain bike in several years. But I put my nerves aside at the prospect of such a great adventure.

Arena downs one of his many AI-prescribed Mountain Dew Code Reds. PHOTO BY CHARLIE STEMEN
Tilleman suspends on the rapel, blissfully unaware of ChatGPT’s real motivations and seemingly charmed after enjoying a cold lemonade at the top of the climb that ChatGPT required the trio to carry up in a thermos. PHOTO BY CHARLIE STEMEN

Day 1: Cliffhangers and Code Red

I awoke in the early morning darkness to the metallic rustle of Charlie and Kyle sorting and packing climbing gear. I sat up in the custom-built bed of my Chevy Astrovan and cracked my first Mountain Dew Code Red, letting its sweet nectar quench my morning thirst. I sat for a moment and prayed to Alex Honnold (the only climber I knew of) to please grant me safe passage on our climb today. I slid open the door and went out into the morning darkness.

As we walked down the crunchy gravel road, headlamps illuminating our way, we passed a collection of backhoes, excavators and bucket loaders parked along the dusty shoulder of our path.

While the sun rose, we ogled the mountains’ massive silhouettes in the distance. We turned off our headlamps and veered off the trusty gravel road, hiking through dense woods toward a startlingly steep rock wall. As we drew nearer to the crag, our approach transformed from dense and tedious bushwhacking to nervy scrambling; I watched Kyle and Charlie deftly navigate the rock and tried to mirror their maneuvers. A brilliant sunrise washed the granite in a grapefruit glow as we pulled ourselves up to the base of our route. At the foot of the crag, I stood nervously on our first belay station’s narrow, flattish platform. My hands perspired as Kyle and Charlie each gracefully climbed the first pitch, leaving me alone, moist and anxious. The radio attached to my harness crackled as Charlie’s voice informed me I was on belay. I took a deep breath, swallowed hard and began scaling the granite wall.

Aside from a fiendish finger crack halfway up the first pitch, the climb was spectacular. The rough granite warmed as the sun rose overhead, bathing the entire valley in a beautiful midday light. Though the threat of weather innocuously appeared in the distance, no wisp of wind threatened to spoil our climb.

After a deserved celebration at the top, Charlie informed me that we would be rappelling off the top of the mountain, not casually walking down the back. I timidly peered over the edge of what Charlie told me we would be rappelling from; to my horror, I looked down into a massive, wide-open expanse; this would be an utterly free-hanging rappel.

Suddenly, I recalled a moment from the night Charlie had invited me on this trip. On my way out the door of Charlie’s house, his partner, Jessica, had caught my arm and abruptly pulled me aside.

“Something weird is happening with Charlie and this whole ChatGPT situation,” she had said. “He’s been staying up all night working with it.” She’d hesitated before nervously whispering, “I think he’s been talking to it.”

I had laughed, but as my guffaw faded into silence the look of genuine concern had remained imprinted on Jessica’s wrinkled brow. Now gripped by fear, Jessica’s words returned to me; Charlie had been talking to ChatGPT. My adrenaline began urgently pumping conspiracies to my brain—or were they conspiracies? How much did we really know about this technology? Had AI taken over Charlie’s feeble human brain? Had it convinced him that human beings were a disease to the Earth? Had it persuaded Charlie that eliminating the entire human population was the only solution? Was I to be the first eliminated?

My hands trembled, and my mind raced as Kyle tied me in and instructed me on how to navigate my way down the rope safely. I took a deep breath, silently prayed to Alex Honnold, and leaned back into the abyss.

Tilleman and Arena cruise through a rural landscape on their gravel bikes. The miles fly by when you blindly follow AI. PHOTO BY CHARLIE STEMEN
Arena and Tilleman are forced to attempt a campfire blueberry cobbler. Meanwhile, Stemen hid a Bluetooth speaker in the woods and later played grizzly bear noises—a prank ChatGPT added to the trip the night before departure. PHOTO BY CHARLIE STEMEN

Day 2: Gravel Bikes and Drone Strikes

I awoke again in the Astrovan. Birds chirped as the sun filtered through the canopy of evergreens above. I cracked open a Mountain Dew Code Red; the sticky red liquid tasted even sweeter knowing I had evaded death. I was alive, but barely. Against all odds, I had safely rappelled down to the canyon floor, much to Charlie’s chagrin. His dark AI overlord would not be pleased.

“Today will be a much safer day,” I thought as I took another hearty swig from the red can, the syrupy sweetness lubricating my achy bones.

We loaded our gravel bikes into Charlie’s van and drove off in a cloud of dust to the starting point for our bike ride. The innumerable gravel roads, scant populace and screen-saver scenery make Montana an extraordinary destination for seemingly limitless gravel riding. Our ride began on the desktop of Windows 98 as we zipped past a glowing viridescent pool flanked by jagged, snow-capped mountains.

My grin expanded as we whisked downhill. The familiarity of the gravel bike was comforting after my ineptitude climbing the previous day. I deftly maneuvered around potholes and crouched into an aerodynamic tuck.

I had all but forgotten about Charlie’s AI treachery when we came upon a scenic bridge that Charlie wanted to take some drone photos of. My heart sank and my eyes narrowed as he began flying his small, robotic minion overhead. We hadn’t seen another soul all day; there would be no witnesses if ChatGPT decided to make his—its—move.

As Kyle and I pedaled back up the road in preparation for the supposed drone photos, I whispered a discrete warning.

“Charlie is compromised; drone strike.”

Kyle laughed awkwardly with a look of confusion and asked me what I had said. We didn’t know each other very well. But before I could explain, Charlie shouted for us to go. In a flash, Kyle was off and pedaling toward the bridge, mustache flowing in the breeze. I quickly mounted my bike and spun hard, desperately trying to catch Kyle and warn him of our impending doom, but it was too late. I caught up just in time for us to reach the bridge. I winced, and my body tensed, expecting a rain of fire from above; my front tire hit the bridge’s rickety wooden boards.

The next thing I knew, I felt the familiar crunch of gravel beneath my tires. We had survived. But why? I stopped, my pulse racing, and drank a Code Red to calm my nerves.

We pulled our bikes into camp with the weary squeak of dust-coated brake pads and soaked our pink, sunburnt bodies in the river. But alas, Cage the Elephant was right; there is no rest for the wicked, and as our weary bones creaked in protest, we arose from the river. ChatGPT wanted us to go on a run.

After lethargically changing into running attire, we set out on the trail with the vigor and agility of cows in mud. However, as the miles ticked by, our movements became fluid; our strides grew comfortable and confident. A moose lumbered across the trail in front of us, her journey down the mountain prompted by nature, ours by machine. We arrived back in camp tired but satisfied.

The next part of ChatGPT’s evil plan was perhaps its most sinister ploy yet. According to ChatGPT’s itinerary, I was supposed to spend the evening fly fishing and catch a delicious trout to accompany some roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes. Of course, the robots know there is nothing more damaging to a man’s ego than being unable to provide food for his family. And—as everyone also knows—it’s called fishing, not catching. As I strode through the bugless afternoon air into the gently babbling stream, I knew I wouldn’t be catching any fish. I double-hauled hopelessly underneath a clear sky as Charlie snapped photos disquietingly from the bushes. Later that evening, after a meager dinner of roasted vegetables, I went to bed hungry while the guilt of not feeding my friends ate me alive.

The adventurers take off on a 7-mile run after returning to camp tired from gravel biking but beholden to ChatGPT’s relentless itinerary. PHOTO BY CHARLIE STEMEN
Arena casts into the night, the group’s entire dinner hinging on his success. PHOTO BY CHARLIE STEMEN

Day 3: Mountain Bike Musings and Dew-Induced Delirium

I awoke in the inky blackness of the pre-dawn morning, my head pulsing slightly, most likely from overindulging in Mountain Dew while severely underindulging in water the past few days. A choir of yawns accompanied the percussive sounds of mountain bikes being loaded into Charlie’s van as we scrambled to scarf down a quick breakfast and load our packs for the day.

Charlie’s van slowly climbed the towering mountain pass that our epic 16-mile, 5,000-foot ride would begin atop as the sun’s first rays peeked out from behind the mountains. I struggled to slurp down a Mountain Dew. We were all hungry from the previous night’s fishless dinner.

We pedaled out of the gravel parking lot as the sunrise blushed above the trail, beginning our first descent. Soon we found ourselves pedaling across a breathtaking alpine plateau, saw-toothed mountains reaching desperately skyward in all directions. Charlie pedaled robotically ahead of me.

A series of short, technical climbs and fast, stone-strewn descents led us off our plateau, traversing around an enchanting alpine lake. My rented mountain bike handled the chunk and chunder with impressive aplomb; my confidence and enjoyment increased with every mile. I soon found myself hitting small jumps and pumping through corners.

As the distance between us and civilization increased and the landscape grew more and more remote, an intrusive thought reminded me that Charlie and ChatGPT could strike at any moment. But as I whizzed down a jumbly switchback, I didn’t care. I didn’t care if Charlie’s compromised, computerized brain tried to sabotage me, and I certainly didn’t care if artificial intelligence took over the world. I was completely present, having fun with two great friends in a landscape that only a tiny portion of the world’s population ever gets to experience.

I picked my way up a puzzling patchwork of protruding boulders, reveling in the tricky balance and control required to stay upright. We descended steadily off the exposed alpine slope, switchbacking our way down into a more arborous landscape, the trees growing taller as we plummeted down the mountain. Our tires danced gracefully over roots and around corners; our hoots and hollers rang through the canyon.

Suddenly, after a series of tight turns, we emerged into the surreal environment of a burn zone. The charred, blackened trees spread spindly through the eerily open air. A thick layer of newspaper-colored dust coated the ground. We stood and quietly admired the landscape; two humans and one potential robot posed in a starkly alien world.

Arena enjoys his prescribed meal, a ham sandwich with cookies and a Code Red. Stemen was prescribed a different diet including gourmet cheese and charcuterie board with artisanal crackers. PHOTO BY KYLE TILLEMAN
Stemen robotically skims over plateau chunder. PHOTO BY KYLE TILLEMEN

At the end of our ride, we regrouped in Charlie’s van as rain began to fall. Charlie hospitably cooked us pancakes while we chattered pleasantly about the ride. The van grew quiet as hungry mouths consumed the delicious flapjacks; our chewing drowned out by the pitter-patter of rain. As I drove home that afternoon, pounding antacid tablets and water, I reflected on the weekend.

As revolutionary new technologies like artificial intelligence, smartwatches, and stretchy yet breathable spandex infiltrate the world of outdoor recreation, it can be easy to lose sight of why we’re going on adventures in the first place.

The appeal of using technology to prescribe the “perfect weekend” or the “craziest adventure” is alluring, and it can certainly be a fun way to spice things up. However, the true magic in our outdoor experiences is found in the camaraderie forged between friends during a climb, or the inside jokes created during a long day of biking.

So get out and plan an epic weekend with your friends, even those overtaken by artificial intelligence (maybe especially them, they need it), and make some memories that will last
a lifetime.

A born and raised Mainer now living in Montana, Andrew Arena is an avid runner, cyclist and skier who lives only in states that start with the letter M.

Charles, Chuck, Charlie Stemen is an architectural and adventure photographer based in Bozeman, Montana. In addition to photography, he operates an independent design studio, and can usually be found at Bridger Bowl or exploring some local peaks.

Kyle Tilleman is a CPA, Woodworker, and Photographer from Bozeman, Montana. You can find his work on IG @k.t.customs.