World firsts are meaningless, personal firsts are profound

Some people think adventure is dead because most of the world has now been explored, and there aren’t many genuine firsts in exploration still remaining. But is this true, or is it just the meaning of adventure that needs to be redefined?

During my adventures on the internet I occasionally wander by the blog of the professional adventurer Alastair Humphreys, and a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon an old post of his with the surprising title Adventure is dead.

Alastair Humphreys saying adventure is dead is a bit like Sir David Attenborough saying we've done wildlife (Photo: Johann Edwin Heupel)
Alastair Humphreys saying adventure is dead is a bit like Sir David Attenborough saying we’ve done wildlife (Photo: Johann Edwin Heupel)

Adventure is dead, coming from a man who’s done a complete circumnavigation of the globe on pushbike, rowed across the Atlantic, dragged a sledge across Greenland, canoed down the Yukon and walked alone across India? Isn’t that a bit like Jerry Seinfeld saying all the world’s jokes have been told, or David Attenborough telling us wildlife has been done now? I clicked on the link in some concern. Was he about to announce his retirement by telling us there’s no longer any money in professional adventuring so he’s giving up to go and train as a lawyer?

A moment later I breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t saying adventure is dead at all. He was just playing devil’s advocate after reading a silly BBC article which asked the question what adventures are actually left? and reached a false conclusion.

The BBC piece was reporting on Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ latest stunt to complete the first ever winter crossing of Antarctica, supported by two bulldozers dragging industrial sledges containing his supplies and living quarters. They found this latter point disappointing because, and I quote:

“Once upon a time warriors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan led their forces thousands of miles overland across unknown topography, while fighting off rival armies. Great navigators – Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook – discovered new continents.”

They lament the fact that genuine firsts in exploration are getting hard to find and that “new feats” these days seem to be as much about endurance as discovery. They explain that firsts in exploration seem to be becoming more and more tenuous, citing the South Pole as an example. Since Roald Amundsen reached it for the first time in 1911 we have had the first solo expedition, the fastest kite-assisted journey, the first balloon flight, the oldest person, the first woman to ski alone, and the first to ride a bike.

I share some of this irritation myself. I’ve mentioned before how I once bet a friend after a few jars that he couldn’t be the first person to ride a pedalo across the English Channel, only to have the bet annulled when a spot of Googling revealed that not only had it been done already but that somebody had even rowed across in a bathtub. On the face of it, it’s an attitude that appears to dominate the world of climbing and mountaineering as well, where quite a lot of people make a big deal of being the first: the first Ruritanian female, the first gay South African, the youngest to climb it dressed as an ostrich. Every single person who climbs a mountain stands on the shoulders of those who have been before, profiting by their experience. First ascenders are the pioneers, who find the route and take the risks associated with it, and in many instances even they have benefited from others who have tried and failed before them. But to be the first to stand on your head, remove your trousers and make a phone call from the summit? It seems a little absurd, and the mountaineering authorities in Nepal are now taking such a dim view of some of the more ridiculous ascents they announced recently they will be taking steps to constrain bizarre records on Everest.

When Robert Falcon Scott and his party reached the South Pole a month after Amundsen, they had man-hauled the entire way without an internet connection. Perhaps that's why they all looked so cheerful when they got there. (Photo: Henry Bowers)
When Robert Falcon Scott and his party reached the South Pole a month after Amundsen, they had man-hauled the entire way without an internet connection. Perhaps that’s why they all looked so cheerful when they got there. (Photo: Henry Bowers)

But does any of this mean adventure is dead, and is it even a true reflection of adventuring at all?

The above quotation from the BBC article reminds me of a famous line by the BBC darts commentator Sid Waddell, who after seeing Eric Bristow win the world darts championship for the umpteenth time, uttered the following immortal sentence.

“When Alexander the Great was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer; Bristow is only 27.”

The word we use for this type of statement in English is bathos. Alexander the Great has as much to do with modern adventuring as he does with tossing a pointy bit of metal at a target on a wall after a few pints. It reflects a romantic notion that modern adventuring should somehow hearken back to an era of 19th century gentleman explorers who had a genuinely unmapped world to go out and discover. As there have become fewer parts of the world nobody has been to before, the media has clung to the view that adventure is only worth reporting if it’s a “first” for something. This has led to sponsors tending to favour activities where they can claim priority, and is why so many media-hungry adventurers have obsessed over manufacturing obscure firsts.

One of the things I like about Alastair Humphreys’ blog is his refreshingly inclusive approach to adventuring. By their nature professional adventurers do all sorts of extreme activities ordinary people like you or I wouldn’t dream of doing ourselves. Yet a surprising number of them write as though they look down on anyone who can’t measure up to their own exacting standards. This is particularly true in the climbing world, where a debate about climbing purity and fair means dominates discussion forums like UK Climbing, and a number of extremely talented climbers fan the flames by regularly criticising those of a lesser ability or less adventurous approach in their blogs.

You may call it paddling along a canal, but these youngsters were having a microadventure
You may call it paddling along a canal, but these youngsters were having a microadventure

Alastair Humphreys, on the other hand, has done some pretty extreme stuff in his time and continues to do so, but far from looking down on others, he actively encourages his fans and followers to get outdoors and explore the world in whatever way seems adventurous to them. He has coined the term microadventure to describe short one or two day trips close to home that enable ordinary folk to investigate their local countryside in any way that expands their own horizons. I laughed when I first came across the term and started using it in a tongue-in-cheek way to describe my day walks in the country outside London, but judging by the blog comments he gets and some of the tweets on the #microadventure hashtag, the concept has been inspirational to a great many people who would never see themselves as adventurers.

So he posed the same question as the BBC – is adventure dead? – but not surprisingly, with a very different, more focused and knowledgeable audience, he received a very different response. While the commenters on the BBC site tried to deny the premise by finding more obscure firsts, Alastair’s simply focused on defining the term adventure, and seemed to be in overwhelming agreement.

Here are some examples. I hope neither Alastair nor his commenters mind me repeating them here.

“There’s adventure to be had just about everywhere. It might not be cutting-edge, ground-breaking, adventure, but does that really matter? No, not at all.”

“An adventure is a state of being to do with going to the edges of one’s own experience. It is not about ‘new challenges’, in absolute terms, at all.”

“While there is no fame in claiming a summit that has been climbed by others, there is still immeasurable value in personal achievement. Why should it be necessary for our endeavours to have meaning in a global context?”

Quite (Credit: Cedar Van Tassel)
Quite (Credit: Cedar Van Tassel)

“When will we admit that exploration can be subjective, philosophical, and cultural, and doesn’t have to be about ‘…ests’ anymore?”

“Why does an adventure have to be a first? There’s plenty out there if adventure rather than fame is the goal.”

“There is adventure, exploration and ‘firsting’. Adventure is very personal and starts at different levels for everyone … What I may consider adventurous for me, some may not consider so for themselves.”

“When you’re trying out something new for the first time, this is your own very first ascent. This is your adventure.”

“I’ve just spent 4 days camping and canoeing down the well known and beautiful River Wye. We were not the first … there were dozens of other like-minded canoeists and kayakers paddling down it … but it was an adventure to all four of us.”

“Adventure is not dead. The challenge against ones own limits are still as real as ever.”

I don’t need to go on. I’m sure you can see the connection in all of these statements. Adventuring is all about achieving your own personal first. It doesn’t have to be a world first at all, in order to be considered adventurous. Another professional adventurer, the cycle-touring blogger Tom Allen, pointed out this obsession the media has with superlatives and priority in the context of exploration and adventuring, doesn’t seem to be extended into other walks of life. “I haven’t seen many adverts for the greatest number of keys pressed on a piano in five minutes, or the longest and most difficult book ever written,” he said.

The 318th Briton on the summit of Everest. Of course, everyone knows climbing Everest is a piece of piss these days and you can pretty much get carried up by Sherpas, but I found it surprisingly hard work.
The 318th Briton on the summit of Everest. Of course, everyone knows climbing Everest is a piece of piss these days and you can pretty much get carried up by Sherpas, but I found it surprisingly hard work.

I can certainly relate to all of this. Having been the 318th Briton to reach the summit of Everest last year, I think Everest is a particularly good example to illustrate this point. In recent years the media has slated Everest climbers, characterising them as incompetent and self-obsessed, and promoting a fallacy that climbing Everest is something any fool can do if they pay enough money to be carried to the top, rather than a hard physical challenge that will be a life-affirming achievement for anyone who undertakes it. In among the pages and pages of articles about queues on the Hillary Step, there were a handful of positive stories reporting that the first Saudi Arabian woman, the first Pakistani woman, the first Lithuanian woman, the first Indian sisters, the first twins and the oldest man had all reached the summit. It was a great achievement for all of these people, but I’m absolutely sure that everyone else who reached the summit this year would have had just as much to celebrate.

But I never needed Everest to identify with all the people who responded to Alastair Humphreys’ post. I’ve been to some pretty amazing places over the last few years, climbed some truly breathtaking mountains, and feel very fortunate to be living quite an adventurous lifestyle. I’ve always known I’ve not been doing it in a way others would consider impressive. Most of the foreign treks I have completed have been in organised groups, and my climbing is invariably guided. I would need to stretch truth fairly creatively in order to find even an obscure first, and looking for sponsorship has been as far from my mind as auditioning for Big Brother.

I enjoy writing about my adventures, though, and I first started putting my travel diaries up on my website six years ago after a climb to the North Col of Everest. I didn’t expect many people to read them – they were more for my own benefit than others – and for a long time I don’t think many people did.

What does it matter that you're on a guided trip when you're walking through a landscape like this?
What does it matter that you’re on a guided trip when you’re walking through a landscape like this?

When I realised I could convert them into ebooks and put them on Amazon, I didn’t expect many people to buy them either, or give positive reviews, as they were only lightly edited by myself, and never intended for sale or a wide external readership. Much of the writing had been done when I was exhausted in my tent after a long day’s walk or climb, and I had more or less left them as they were. I dreaded the first reviews when they came, as I assumed this fact would be obvious and the reviews would therefore be extremely negative.

I’ve been amazed. There have inevitably been a few people who bought them expecting a professionally produced travel book, and have responded with reviews like “this is just some bloke’s travel diary”, or “this book could have done with proper editing”, and given it one or two stars. But to my great delight the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and reading the comments a theme has emerged which would amaze both journalists obsessing over world firsts and publishers who believe a journey has to be extreme in order to be considered worth telling.

When I study the reviews the overriding sense I get is that people appreciate them because I’m just some ordinary guy struggling to do something any one of them could do. They understand that it’s adventurous for me and unfamiliar to them, and that’s the important bit; I really don’t need to do anything extreme or tick off any firsts. I have discovered there are plenty of readers who appreciate humility and honesty over any amount exaggerated derring-do, and that every story is unique in its own way.

So of course adventure isn’t dead. All the BBC was really saying was that most world firsts are meaningless. It was left to Alastair Humphreys’ readers to identify the essence of adventure: it’s personal firsts that have meaning, and you can find these in every new place you visit.

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6 thoughts on “World firsts are meaningless, personal firsts are profound

  • September 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Yes! This! I got into climbing and hiking recently and I know that even small hikes or climbs for me feel like momentous achievements because I never thought I was the type of person who could do these things. I don’t have to climb something first or even something as iconic as Everest to feel amazing about what I’ve done. For me, it is about pushing one’s own boundaries, whatever those might be.

  • September 19, 2013 at 4:09 am

    Great piece Mr Horrell and superbly written.

    As it is an opinion piece, from yourself and a number of other adventurers you quote above, I would like to add my 2c worth!

    I agree that we can all have ‘personal adventures’ and I myself enjoy these on a weekly basis as you well know. These can be very fulfilling.

    The idea or notion that world firsts may have lesser importance than personal adventures is interesting (which your article seems to allude to without saying it directly but please correct me if I am wrong). Whilst some ‘world first’ claims can be bordering on the slightly absurb I do admit, the concept of humans pushing themselves to attempt harder and harder things is the key thing here.

    I do not believe as a human race we will ever be completely content in going and repeating what other have done before us. We have an innate sense of curiosity which pushes us to wonder what is out there, what is possible, what is around the next corner. Sure we can have a sense of fulfillment from from having a ‘personal adventure’. But if this was all that we needed in life then man would never have got to the stage we are today. We would still be living in caves and happy to stick to what we know and have ‘microadventures’ exploring the campfire.

    I believe 70% of the worlds oceans are not explored. Not to mention anything about outer space. No one has flown a hand glider around the world non-stop, swam the pacific or free-dived to 500m. Are these even possible? I don’t know but let’s try and see. New and exciting challenges await around every corner. I find it tremendously inspiring to the people who are brave enough to try firsts for human-kind. They show us that we are bigger and more capable than we ever thought we were. They give us hope and inspiration.

    Microadventures are fantastic. Microadventures have their place in adventuring. Personal adventuring where you push your own personal limits are immensely important for self-growth. Attempting genuine world-firsts for human kind are a different form of adventuring. They also very much have their place in adventuring. Neither forms can be said to be necessarily better or worse or more important or less important than the other. But how do you compare a weekend microadventure paddling down a river for 2 hours (like I enjoy), to a genuine world-first exploratory adventure trying something which you are not even sure is humanly possible? The level of commitment for one is on a completely different scale. Ask anyone who has ever climbed a new route on a mountain or tried something no one has ever done before to describe that fear of venturing into the unknown.

    You are very honest about what you enjoy doing and the style you enjoy adventuring. But this does not mean the elite climbers you mention in the article who are pushing boundaries will enjoy climbing in the style that you like. They are also honest in their opinions of what they deem to be adventures or not. The most important thing in my book the adventure community needs is raw honesty like this. Honesty in what you are trying to do, how you do it, and if you did it or not. We can all agree to disagree and still get along! The worst type of adventurer are the dishonest ones. Those who make false claims/grossly over-exaggerated claims about their achievements or the manner they got there. Let us weed them out and banish them to hell – a place where adventure does not exist and every day is exactly the same with no great challenges to endure, surprises to enjoy or pubs to relive the excitement at the end of the expedition.

    Long live microadventure, long live fulfilling personal adventures and long live the pioneers of world-first adventuring, may everyone get to experience a little or alot of either form in their life!

    Keep up the great posts my friend.


  • September 19, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Thanks, Axe. Passionately argued, and I agree with you 100%.

    The title of the post is deliberately contentious, and I’m glad if it made you read the rest of the article. The title is not of course meant to be taken literally, and having re-read the text I don’t think I am saying that great world firsts are of a lesser importance than personal adventures, or that microadventures are on a level with larger adventures, or that elite climbers shouldn’t be trying to push boundaries.

    On the contrary, I explicitly state that first ascenders are pioneers, and those who follow stand on their shoulders. In the final paragraph I even say “most world firsts are meaningless”. This is an important distinction: most world firsts aren’t really firsts at all, except for the individual (unless you regard continuously carrying a spoon in your mouth as worthy of the name).

    A great response though. Your comment goes a long way beyond what I have said and adds a lot of good stuff to the debate.

    For heaven’s sake slow down on summit day next time though, unless you’re trying to claim the prize for “longest period of time spent waiting for a tent mate to return from the summit”. 😉

  • September 11, 2015 at 1:07 am

    “Adventure, rather than fame, is the goal…”
    Great piece.

  • September 11, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Thanks, Alastair. Glad you found it (eventually) and enjoyed it 🙂

  • June 6, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks for a great post, which several seems to have ad to well here.
    One thing I thought of was this about “pushing one’s own limit”, when talking about adventure. For me an “adventure” doesn’t have to include that. For me an adventure is to do something that is exciting, for me, in some way. I guess it depends on what level of “adventure” you need to feel excited. Some people have a need for more dangerous situations then other. (I guess due to some differences in levels of signaling substances in the brain and things like that.)

    I like to ascend mountains (among other outdoor activites). But I only ascend small mountains. Why ? I do it because I like to be out in the nature and that gives me joy. I rather make 12 trips a year to smaller mountains in my and my neighbouring country then one to a higher mountain farther away.
    For me it is too much preparations, too much money, too much risks, too much uncertainties to be able to summit, too much traveling and too much crowds to ascend higher mountains. I want to get out NOW, not the next year or the year after that… ; )
    For me all my “microadventures” is whats keeps me going on in my life.
    Due to all the trips I have done I have lately even get tired of all the driving by car, to get to the mountains. So, now I appreciate even more the trips I make with my bike out in my neighbouring forest and then getting home without a long driving by car. Well, maybe I am getting old… 😀
    These trips by bike in the forest gives me a lot of microadventures. I get there by my own power, not by car and that makes me feel a lot longer from home then if I would feel driving there by car. Cycling there = I feel more excited = more of an adventure…

    I like ascending mountains for a couple of reasons. I got to see all these beautiful scenaries. I also got a clear goal for my trip. I don’t have to think about where to go. The summit is there and it is (mostly) well defined. Add to that some efforts needed physical and mentally and you got an “adventure”.
    I am not the first ascending these mountains but that doesn’t matter. I do it for my own sake and no one else. I feel very relaxed, in knowing I don’t have to do it for recognition, money, any award or something. I set my own demands and I am responsible to me alone. I put my own standard on what is “right” or “wrong” in my ascendings. (I have a tend though to do it in “good style” and is ambitious of making “clean table” of the highest summit and the seconds peaks, which can make me tired of myself sometimes… 😀 But better that then skip a summit and then change my mind when I have got down…)

    One goal I have is to experience the mountains in different seasons and I appreciate the smallest mountains as well as the higher one I ascend. Every mountain has its own beauty and charm.
    But, the bottom line is, I do it for seeing the beauty of the nature, for seeing something else then I use to every day and to get some exercise, not for “pushing my limit”. That’s giving me my adventure…

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