Firsts have always been important in exploration. This seems rather straightforward, even tautological, to say since being first is woven into the definition of exploration. After all, traveling to unknown places is doing something that hasn’t been done before (or at least hasn’t been reported before). And this is how the history of exploration often appears to us in textbooks and timelines: as lists of expeditionary firsts from Erik the Red to Neil Armstrong.
In truth, though, firsts are fuzzy.
Some fuzziness comes from ignorance, our inability to compensate for the incompleteness of the historical record. This is a perennial problem in history in general and history of exploration in particular. (I call it a problem but it’s actually what makes me happy and keeps me employed).
Was Christopher Columbus the first European to reach America in 1492? Probably not, since evidence suggests that Norse colonies existed in North America five hundred years before he arrived. Was Robert Peary the first to reach the North Pole in 1909? It’s hard to say since Frederick Cook claimed to be first in 1908 and its possible that neither man made it.
Some fuzziness comes from the different meanings we give to “discovery.” The South American leader Simon Bolivar called Alexander von Humboldt “the true discoverer of America.” Bolivar did not mean this literally since Humboldt traveled through South America in 1800, 17 years after Bolivar himself was born there, 300 years after Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, and about 16,000 years after Paleo-Indians arrived in America, approved of what they saw, and decided to stay.
But for Bolivar, Humboldt was the first person to see South America holistically: as a complex set of species, ecosystems, and human societies, held together by faltering colonial empires. Being first in exploration, Bolivar realized, meant more than planting a flag in the ground.
At first glance, we seem to have banished fuzziness from modern exploration. For example, there is little doubt that Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on the moon since the event was captured on film and audio recordings, transmitted by telemetry, and confirmed by material artifacts such as moon rocks. (Moon hoax believers, I’m sorry. I know this offends.) Were the Russians suddenly interested in challenging Armstrong’s claim to being first, they would have a tough time proving it since Armstrong could give the day and year of his arrival on the moon (20 July 1969) and even the exact hour, minute, and second when his boot touched the lunar surface (20:17:40 Universal Coordinated Time).
But this growing precision of firsts has generated its own ambiguities. We have become more diligent about recording firsts precisely because geographical milestones have become more difficult to achieve. As a result, there has been a shift from firsts of place to firsts of method. As the forlorn, never-visited regions of the globe diminish in number, first are increasingly measured by the manner of reaching perilous places rather than the places themselves.
For example, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to ascend Mt. Everest in 1953, but Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to climb the mountain without oxygen in 1978. In 1980, Messner achieved another first, by ascending Everest without oxygen or support.
Now as “firsts of difficulty” fall, they are being replaced by “firsts of identity.” James Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest in 1963. Junko Tabei was the first woman (1975). Since then, Everest has spawned a growing brood of “identity first” summits including nationality (Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan), disability (one-armed, blind, double-amputee) and novelty (snowboarding, married ascent, longest stay on summit).
It would be easy to dismiss this quest for firsts as a shallow one, a vainglorious way to achieve posterity through splitting hairs rather than new achievements. But I don’t think this is entirely fair. While climbing Everest or kayaking the Northwest Passage may have little in common with geographical firsts in exploration 200 years ago, this is not to say that identity firsts are meaningless acts. They may not contribute to an understanding of the globe, but they have become benchmarks of personal accomplishment, physical achievements — much like running a marathon — that have personal and symbolic value.
Still, I am disturbed by the rising number of “youngest” firsts. Temba Tsheri was 15 when he summited Everest on 22 May 2001. Jessica Watson was 16 last year when she left Sydney Harbor to attempt a 230 day solo circumnavigation of the globe. (She is currently 60 miles off Cape Horn). Whatever risks follow adventurers who seek to be the oldest, fastest, or the sickest to accomplish X, they are, at least, adults making decisions.
But children are different. We try to restrict activities that have a high risk of injury for minors. In the U.S. for example, it is common to delay teaching kids how to throw a curve ball in baseball until they are 14 for fear of injuring ligaments in the arm. Similar concerns extend to American football and other contact sports.
So why do we continue to celebrate and popularize the pursuit of dangerous firsts by minors? What is beneficial in seeing if 16-year-olds can endure the hypoxia of Everest or the isolation of 230 days at sea. Temba Tsheri, current holder of youngest climber on Everest, lost five fingers to frostbite.
We must remember that to praise “the youngest” within this new culture of firsts, we only set the bar higher (or younger as it were) for the record to be broken again. In California, Jordan Romero is already training for his ascent of Everest in hopes to break Tsheri’s age record. He is thirteen.