Why do people climb 8000-meter mountains? Free-solo the Eiger? BASE jump the Eiffel Tower? Motives are tricky things.
My work on Arctic explorers gave me a way to think about it.
Nineteenth-century explorers had their own answers to the “why” question. In the 1850s, when U.S. exploration of the Arctic began, explorers defended their missions by describing all of the commercial benefits that would accrue from their expeditions: new routes to Asia, new whale fisheries, new technological innovations in ship design. (Interestingly, NASA features a similar-sounding set of commercial benefits when it justifies its current plan to return humans to the Moon and Mars).
Then, in the 1880s, explorers changed course, justifying their exploits by anti-commercial motives: we explore because it is impractical. We explore to escape the strictures of the civilized world. We explore for the sake of exploring. Or, in George Mallory’s translation for mountain climbing, “because it’s there.”
In the language of day, the explorer had succumbed to “Arctic fever,” a term used over and over again in the last decades of the nineteenth century to describe the seemingly irrational behavior of explorers in putting themselves at risk:
“The northern bacilli were in my system, the arctic fever in my veins, never to be eradicated.” Robert Peary, 1898
“The polar virus was in [my husband's] blood and would not let him rest.” Emma DeLong, 1884
Explorers are ” infected with the same spirit.” Frederick Cook, undated
“Arctic enthusiasm is an intermittent fever, returning in almost epidemic form after intervals of normal indifference.” McClure’s Magazine, 1893
As I tried to make sense of “Arctic Fever” for my book Coldest Crucible, I concluded that all of this talk of fevers was just another means to show purity of motive:
The disease may seem to be nothing but a playful literary metaphor, but it had serious functions. Arctic fever located the urge to explore in the human passions. It was a condition that afflicted the heart against the better judgement of the mind, operating beyond conscious control. Why should anyone attempt to reach the North Pole when it served no useful or scientific function? Because -explorers claimed- they felt irrationally compelled. In this way, Arctic fever masked rational motives for voyaging north, namely, the promise of celebrity and financial reward.
While explorers spoke about their irresistible compulsions, they were simultaneously working out huge publishing contracts, product endorsements, and lecture fees. At the time I wrote my book, it seemed to me that all of this talk of instinct, true spirit, experience of the sublime, etc. was just a matter of bait-and-switch: finding motives that would impress paying audiences and would hide the true, mercenary motives behind them.
I haven’t abandoned this line of thinking entirely, but after reading the first chapter in Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, I think I need to revise it.
Coffey’s book is about the effects of extreme adventure on the people left behind: spouses, parents, and children who have to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. She starts her book with interviews of adventurers who talk about their motives in putting themselves at such risk.
“Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more to danger.” Reinhold Messner
“I was totally possessed. The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew it would somehow mark the rest of my life.” Wanda Rutkiewicz
Coffey’s list of climbers who speak about this compulsion is impressive. It extends beyond the elite, celebrity climbers such as Messner and Rutkiewicz to include those who do not have agents, publishing contracts, or product endorsements.
I am realizing that it’s not enough to label this exploration “fever” as merely a savvy form of marketing. It is clearly a psychological manifestation too, one that Coffey links to the impact of extreme risk on biological factors such as adrenaline and dopamine.
Coffey also describes the way that such extreme experience can have, ironically, a quieting effect on adventurists, making them feel less moody, more even-keeled, more able to focus on the present moment. Indeed, more than one climber described climbing as an escape from distraction, a way to concentrate on the task at hand, to live in the moment, to experience things more fully.
At times, it made me wonder if there a common psychological profile for elite climbers. The frequency of people referring to attention and distraction sounded very similar to interviews conducted by Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book, Driven to Distraction, a book about attention deficit disorder (ADD).
The point here is not to throw out one label in order to replace it with another. But Coffey’s book is making me realize that my work on the history of exploration should not only play out at the level of nations, empires, commerce, and popular culture. I need to make room for the individual, a tangled world of emotion, experience, and behavior.
I know that many of you are thinking “No duh! This is standard stuff for climbing books.” True enough: Will power, spirit, fear, endurance, ecstasy: the meat and potatoes of adventure literature. But cultural historians are trained to think of personal motives as ultimately unknowable, a black box that should not be opened. To psychoanalyze the historical subject is like touching the third rail in the subway. Dangerous terrain.