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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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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