Archive for Mountains
So much exploration news rolls through the wires that it’s impossible to write posts about all of it, even a small fraction of it. So I tweet when I can, but 140 characters is not a lot of space to offer analysis or even useful links. So I am going to the occasional round-up here: a short, annotated, links page to developing stories. Think of it as a expeditionary snack: more calories than a tweet, less filling than a post.
The biggest exploration story out of the high Arctic in recent weeks is adventurer Bear Grylls’s report of finding human bones, tools, and large campfire remains near King William’s Island. He suggested that these might have been the remains and artifacts of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845. Russell Potter has been following the story closely on his blog Visions of the North.
Roger Launius’s Blog profiles former NASA administrator Dan Goldin lecture about NASA’s efforts in astrobiology. The Journal of Cosmology just published a special issue Colonizing Mars: The Human Mission to the Red Planet. Many of the essays are quite pro-Mars. Mine is not. In The Problem of Human Missions to Mars I discuss the reasons why plans for human missions to Mars (and there have been many) never seem to go anywhere.
Mikael Strandberg takes up the issue of Fakes and Cheats in exploration, focusing on the motives of explorers in lying about their claims. This issue has a long history, one that I’ve written about here in regards to the North Pole Controversy of 1909. Yet its a subject that never seems to goes away. The claims of high-altitude climbers routinely come into question today. In January, ExplorersWeb wrote an editorial about rampant fabrication of claims by climbers in the Karakorum. More recently, Jake Norton, author of The MountainWorld Blog, discussed the revelation of speed-climber Christian Stangl’s faked climb of K2. The BBC also challenged Oh Eun-Sun’s claim to be the fastest women to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. Yet not everyone’s ducking the hard routes. Those Who Dared profiles the survival stories of climbers who barely made it back. And for some brilliant photos of climbers in the field, The MountainWorld Blog features photos from Sir Younghusband’s 1903 expedition to Tibet. The Asia Society’s Rivers of Ice project offers a more sobering photographic record of the Himalaya today, chronicling, in mega-pixel detail, the effects of global warming on glaciers.
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is a story common to all human cultures. While this story varies from from place to place and era to era, there are deep structural similarities among its forms. So common were these basic structural elements that comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell called the hero story a “monomyth.”
The story has a structure that we recognize in Bible stories and big-screen films alike: a hero departs the comforts of the known world on a quest. She endures physical and emotional trials, gains wisdom, and returns home to impart lessons learned on the journey.
Campbell’s eagerness (following Jung’s) to reduce all stories to basic structures makes me a little uneasy. (Can we really blueprint all human art forms?) But in the case of the hero story, I think he was on to something. The power of the journey story does appear to have almost universal expression and a common lesson also: that we gain knowledge by our encounter with the unknown and its perils.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the monomyth is monolithic. I see two important variants: some heroes gain knowledge in their quest that adds to things they already know (e.g. Moses and Jesus). Others discard their possessions and beliefs in order to find the truth (e.g. Plato’s prisoner of the cave, Siddhārtha Gautama, and St Francis of Assisi).
Since the late 1700s, the latter variant of the hero monomyth — that one must escape civilization in order to find oneself — has gained a strong foothold in the West. Although the idea that civilization corrupts is an old one, it has blossomed with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others.
In its most extreme form, the escape-civilization-to-find-enlightenment myth suggests that the traveler or explorer gains wisdom only when civilization is burned away by extreme experience. As climber Robert Dunn put it in 1907: explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.”
Or as climber David Breashears expressed it a century later:
The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.
But if the journey does its wisdom-building work by tearing off the mask of civilization, by stripping away artifice, we are left with this question:
What’s underneath the mask?
Dunn and Breashears imply that the true self is revealed: the intense experiences of the journey shear the subject of culture and its trappings. This is a comforting idea at first glance because it presumes that
1) you can find yourself by setting out on an exceptionally difficult adventure.
2) your problems are the result of your culture rather than your essential nature.
This reminds me a lot of John Locke who also believed that you could neatly separate the original self from one imprinted by civilization. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued that human beings begin their journey tabula rasa — as blank slates — waiting to be shaped by experience. The Lockian newborn was a human TiVo pulled from its styrofoam packing, waiting to be filled by sounds and images that would give it its special identity.
I doubt that Dunn or Breashears believe the journey can return the explorer to the perfect self of the infant. I expect they see the perilous journey as a way of re-booting the TiVo rather than wiping it clean, clear out old programming to make space for new material.
The Cult of New Experience
The important point here is this: those who think of the self as something that can be purged of culture, like a psychological master cleanse, tend to weight the power of new experience over the power of reason or ideas, to prefer the bungee jump over the writer’s retreat. In their view, traditional ideas impede our understanding rather than advance it. To access the new, we need to leave our old selves — like a pair of flip-flops — at the door.
Perhaps this obsession with the power of experience explains why so many travelers and explorer seem concerned with having “authentic” experience rather than ones they see as packaged, hybrid, or touristy. In the traveler’s search for the truly different, she must avoid experiences that carry the whiff of world left behind. She avoids the McDonalds in Karachi. She turns down the tour bus to the pyramids. She resists the urge to text-message home from the summit of Everest.
But is our faith in the uber-experience wise? Can we peel away our culture like the rind off an orange? Closer inspection shows how much culture enters the flesh, shapes us, makes us. Humans have an innate form, of course, but its a form that cannot function without an environment. So speaking about one without the other is like asking “Which do plants need more: water or light?”
Before we make pure experience the holy grail of the self-knowledge, then, we need to pay closer attention to the way humans think about these experiences.
First, authentic is a rather squishy concept. Cultures routinely borrow and import what they need from other cultures. For example, in Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert discovers herself in part through her ecstatic encounter with Italy. Italy’s authenticity is expressed through its foods: it is a place of fried zucchini blossoms and sizzling Margarita pizza. Yet the core ingredients of these foods — zucchini and tomatoes — are foreign to Italy. They are both New World species, brought back to Europe and incorporated into Italian cooking in the 19th century. What is authentically Italian experience for Gilbert was, two centuries earlier, suspiciously foreign and non-Italian.
Second, experience itself is never pure, never unmediated (as I wrote about in my recent post about Moscow). Even those experiences which seen so expressly sensory — the joy of food, sex, art — feel different according to our beliefs about them. In his book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Paul Bloom explodes the myth of pure experience:
What matters most is not the world as it appears according to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. This is true of intellectual pleasures, such as the appreciation of paintings and stories, and also for pleasures that seem simpler, such as the satisfaction of hunger and lust. For a painting, it matters who the artist was; for a story whether it is truth or fiction; for a steak we care about what sort of animal it came from; for sex, we care about who we think our sexual partner really is [xii]
Can we apply Bloom’s analysis of pleasure to the explorer’s experience of pain? Does the ascent up Everest gain meaning because of the pure experience of frostbite and hypoxia? Or does it matter more that the climber is enduring such pain on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain? The mask of civilization is not something that the climber rips away. It’s the reason the climber is there in the first place.
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.
In 1788, twenty years after sailing into the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks turned his attention to the next riddle of geographical science: the exploration of Africa. In St. Albans Tavern in London, Banks and the other members of the elite Saturday Club drafted a proposal of action:
Resolved: That as no species of information is more ardently desired, or more generally useful, than that which improves the science of Geography; and as the vast Continent of Africa, notwithstanding the efforts of the Antients, and the wishes of the Moderns, is still in a great measure unexplored, the Members of this Club do form themselves into an Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Parts of that Quarter of the World.
The Saturday Club acted quickly. It endorsed the resolution, established an Association, put together an expeditionary fund, and commissioned John Ledyard (also a veteran of Cook’s voyages) to cross the African continent from east to west. Ledyard arrived in Egypt ready to complete the “efforts of the Ancients” but was struck down by illness in Cairo. He died before his boots got sandy.
Ledyard’s death was a disappointment to the Association, but it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Africa had proved itself resistant to European efforts for over three centuries. The first forays into Africa began badly. In 1446 Portuguese mariner Nuno Tristão took twelve men up the Gambia River in pursuit of Africans and riches. Tristão was attacked by Gambian tribesmen and killed along with half of his party.
The Portuguese learned from Tristão’s mistake. When they returned to West Africa, they abandoned their plans to explore and conquer the interior, preferring to set up outposts or “feitorias” on the coast from which they could trade with African kingdoms of the interior.
Other factors inhibited exploration as well. The inhospitable conditions of the Sahara made overland expeditions difficult. The great rivers of Central Africa seemed more promising, but they were filled with cataracts that made it impossible to travel far by boat. Malaria felled Europeans who traveled inland, and sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) not only attacked humans but horses. The horse, so effective as a weapon of war for Europeans battling the Incas in the New World, proved useless in European efforts to dominate Central Africa.
Despite Africa’s importance in the Atlantic economy as a source of slaves and gold, then, it remained poorly understood in Europe. As a result, it remained a place of mythical and geographical speculation: on the source of the Nile, the riches of Timbucktoo, the Gold Mines of Ophir, the trans-continental mountains of Kong, and the mysterious Mountains of the Moon.
This explains the power of Africa in the Western imagination even late into the nineteenth century. For writers and artists, Africa became a canvas upon which almost anything could be painted. In Anglo-American literature, Africa found a home in the work of dozens of writers including H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines, She), Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan). Interestingly, the Africa of these works was background rather than foreground, a region made dark (morally, racially, and geographically) so as to better illuminate its protagonists — Allan Quartermain, Charles Marlow, Lord Greystoke — as they found adventure and enlightenment.
How such ideas were projected upon the surface of maps is the focus of Princeton’s excellent online exhibition, To the Mountains of the Moon: Mapping African Exploration, 1541-1880. Created by curator John Delaney, To the Mountains of the Moon offers a history of Africa as seen through European eyes.
As one might expect, early Renaissance maps of Africa were colorful, fantastical documents. What they lacked in credible information they compensated for with a rich palate of speculation. On Sebastian Münster’s 1554 map of Africa one finds the home of the mythic Christian hero, Prester John, as well as a tribe of one-eyed giants, the dough-faced Monoculi, who sit above the bight of Africa.
Nineteenth century maps added precision and sophistication. Gone are the mythic tribes and gold mines of early maps along with the chatty notes in Africa’s margins about river currents, astronomical observations, Biblical figures, and anything tangentially related to the continent.
Yet the later maps leave out Africans too. If Prester John and African cyclops are not representative of Africa’s peoples, at least they show it to be a place of human action and habitation. While some nineteenth century maps — by John Tallis and Victor Levasseur — present ethnographic scenes in the margins, others — such as William Winwood Reed’s Map of African Literature — shows the continent as a white text, tabula rasa, for the names of European explorers. “LIVINGSTONE” stretches across Central Africa from Mozambique to the mouth of the Congo River. Which of these maps – Munster’s or Reed’s – shows the greater distortion?
Despite the excellent maps and essays, the menus of the exhibition are not very clear. It’s easy to get lost and miss a map or two on the way out. This didn’t stop Stanley. It shouldn’t stop you.
Steph Davis climbs such outrageously steep things that one wonders whether sorcery is involved, that perhaps her gifts extend beyond climbing to include the manipulation of physics. She has put up first ascents on the world’s most frightening big-walls, from mountains in Pakistan and Baffin Island to Kyrgyzstan.
Davis is the first woman to free climb the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite and to summit Torre Egger in Patagonia. She has also become an expert in BASE jumping (the acronym stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth), a wild and unforgiving off-shoot of skydiving.
Yet Davis is also a scholar and accomplished writer. Her masters degree in literature focused on the canon of mountaineering literature. In her book, High Infatuation, Davis asks difficult questions about high-risk climbing, examining her own motives, personal relationships, and the broader meanings of her life’s work.
Welcome Steph Davis.
You’ve done some amazingly dangerous climbs, from Mt Fitztroy in Patagonia to the Salathe Wall on El Capitan. When you pursue projects like these, how do think through the risks? Is there a red line that you won’t cross? Or does the line change as you climb?
Climbing varies a lot with risk. For example, free climbing el cap is really difficult, but is much less risky than climbing in the mountains, even if the peak is technically easier to climb. So every style of climbing presents different challenges, in terms of difficult and danger, with lots of blurred lines too. I feel very aware of those elements, and at times I am pulled more towards pushing difficulty, and at other times more pulled toward negotiating risk.
For your masters thesis at Colorado State University, you studied mountaineering literature. Could you talk a bit about your project?
I was in the literature graduate program at CSU, and when the time came to do a master’s project, I tried to think of areas that would interest me. Finally I went to my committee and asked them if I could do the project on mountaineering literature. At the time, this didn’t exist as a field of study there. They were really receptive, and told me if I could write up a bibliography of works with short descriptions as part of the project, they would accept it. I chose a selection of mountaineering and climbing books I found canonical and made the bibliography, and then wrote a thesis project called “the reality of experience in mountaineering literature,” about the ways in which reality can be so disparate and shifting for each individual who is living through extreme experiences. I framed the project as a personal essay, around a summer spent climbing on the Longs Peak Diamond in Colorado, because that was a writing style I was studying a lot.
Do you identify with any particular explorer or mountaineer?
I will always be in awe of Ernest Shackleton, and what he accomplished.
When Darwin went to Patagonia, he carried a copy of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative with him, an account of Humboldt’s own journeys through South America. Do you bring books with you on your climbs? Do you ever have other climbers’ experiences in mind as you make your ascent?
When I go on an expedition, I choose carefully since weight allowances force me to limit the books I bring, and I read very fast. So it‘s impossible to bring enough books for a whole trip. I usually try to bring some very thick, dense novels, also some books about natural science. I also bring one or two books in French or Spanish with a dictionary, because those can be entertaining for days. On actual climbs, I can barely spare the weight to bring food, much less books….but if I am climbing big wall style, I will always bring a journal.
You’ve written about the challenges of being a woman rock-climber in a male-dominated sport. Male climbers didn’t always take you seriously or belittled your accomplishments. Has that changed with your success as a climber or do you still feel like you are treated differently?
It has changed. I wrote about that phase in my book, because it was a strange experience for me. As time has gone by, that phase is over, and I’m relieved, because I didn’t appreciate it.
Do you think being a elite women climber affects the way you are treated by sponsors, fans, or the general public?
That is hard for me to answer. I have been climbing for 18 years, half my life, and have been climbing at a high level for a long time. So I don’t have much perspective versus not being that way. People I meet do tell me that they are inspired or motivated by things I’ve done, and that makes me feel good. But I also feel that doing all these things is not really so unique or special. Everyone I meet has done amazing things in life, they just might not have the same sense of drama attached.
Many people can identify with your struggle to balance family relationships with your work. Yet even by these standards, it seems that you spend a great deal of time away from your friends, family, and dog Fletcher. How do you find the balance point in your life between climbing and these relationships?
Living a simple life is really difficult sometimes, oddly enough. For me, the hardest challenge right now is balancing travel with climbing. Travel is about the worst thing I can do for climbing fitness, but sometimes it‘s necessary for work or certain climbing or jumping plans. When I am at home, on a schedule of working out, and living a simple life, I can climb my best. Being in cars and airplanes and not climbing regularly just doesn’t work….so it can be tricky. In recent years I started base jumping and wing suit flying. Now when I am traveling a lot, I take advantage of being in good jumping places, and focus on jumping instead. Which is great. It is also interesting right now, with Fletcher being 15 and very arthritic. She does not travel well, and mostly needs to be at home where she is comfortable since she can’t walk as well. I definitely prefer to do things which don’t require a lot of walking (certain climbing areas with short approaches where I can carry her and good campsites, skydiving at the local airport where she can be at the landing field, base jumps where she can hang out at the landing site) right now. I sometimes have to force myself to go running, because I really miss her when I run. And I worry a lot when I go on a trip for several weeks, right now.
After successfully free-climbing the Salathe Wall, you experienced a period of depression and self-doubt. As I understand it, you were trying to reconcile your beliefs in a philosophy of acceptance and mindfulness with the sometimes obsessive, single-focused determination you needed as a climber to reach your goals. Could you speak a bit about this? Does this conflict still affect you or have you come to terms with it?
The Salathe experience was pretty severe for me, partly because the climb took so much out of me. I was also dealing with a lot of challenges in my marriage, which made things even harder and raised a lot of questions about partnership, support, and giving. So the experience forced me into a lot of self-examination, and also eventually led me to conclude that there are positive ways to organize personal projects, without having to feel like a burden on others. So I feel very happy now when I get enthusiastic about a project, because I have found there are fun ways to involve others, without the sense of imbalanced giving or taking which is so often the characteristic of a major, individual climbing project, and that makes the entire experience very fulfilling.
It seems to me that the conflict you experienced after climbing the Salathe has parallels in the climbing community where some climbers seek some kind of inner peace or connection with nature whereas others are interested in peak-bagging and new ascents. Could you speak a bit about the culture of elite climbers? Is there a common set of values or is everyone different?
One of the best things about climbing is the fact that people can experience it in so many different ways.
What is your next big project?
Something involving free soloing!
Thanks Steph, good luck and safe travels.
On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.
Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman off-the-grid in Vermont.
Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.
Ahab. As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.
Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again. Near the summit of Everest in 1996, David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.
They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]
It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.
Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.
Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.
Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence. Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.
Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.
Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:
[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]
If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits. But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.
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.