Tuesday, February 4

The Misunderstood Wilderness: Defining Adventure

I’m going to start a loose series of posts called “The Misunderstood Wilderness.”  It will be partially about actual federally designated wilderness, but ultimately it’s just going to be about wild-seeming places that I visit.  Hopefully there will be some cohesion to these posts and in the end I can compile them into a bigger work for broader appeal.

Part II is located here.

ad·ven·ture noun \əd-ˈven-chər\ (Merriam-Webster)

1 a :  an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks
b :  the encountering of risks <the spirit of adventure>
2 :  an exciting or remarkable experience <an adventurein exotic dining>
3 :  an enterprise involving financial risk

A friend of mine taught in the outdoor recreation program at my higher-ed alma mater.  In his classes he defined adventure as “an undertaking where the outcome is uncertain.”  I think for most people that definition simply means that you don’t know if you’ll live or if you’ll die if you embark on adventurous paths.
What I believe he means—and to go deeper into my own definition of the word—is that you undertake a journey into a place where you are uncertain how you will be changed by the experience.  Adventurism is not a fatalistic pursuit.  It’s not to defy or cheat death, to “feel a rush,” or to necessarily test your individual limits.  I am leery of getting sucked into activities with people who are out looking for an adrenalin charge or who are treading the fine line between novelty and authentic experiences.
Okay, I’ve got to completely unpack that last paragraph.  What I’m calling “adventurism” is the participation in outdoor recreational activities that go beyond the mundane.  It is the active pursuit of experiences that are not normally part of day-to-day life for the average person in Western society.  These activities include mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, base jumping, back country skiing, mountaineering, big wave surfing, wingsuit piloting, long distance bike touring, off-trail hiking, etc, etc.  People who do these things, at least those who persist in doing them, don’t tend to be the adrenalin junkies you might imagine.  There are often very deep and personal reasons people do these things with passion.  There are often reasons that are hard to articulate and even harder to try and share with those who don’t understand.  It’s rarely about the “rush” for them.  In fact, for me at least, the experiences are controlled, deliberate, and risk is only acceptable if it is calculated to the nth degree and mitigated beyond reason.  

5th Class East Ridge of Father Dyer Peak,
Tenmile Range, Colorado
(timer selfie)
I don’t want to die.  I want to enjoy life.  That means I don’t want to take the chance of breaking bones or tearing tissue.  I want to enjoy the activities I participate in in such a way that I can continue enjoying them without interruption.  No casts, no physical therapy, no headstones on a grassy hill.  I don’t enjoy those things.  I enjoy cycling, climbing, hiking, big mountains, deep forests, raging rivers, deep snow, high places…
I get nothing from close calls.  While it gets your heart rate up, taking a fall while rock climbing and having your rope almost cut in half on a sharp rock is not the experience you go seeking when you tie into the end of a 10mm nylon climbing rope.  The rope is there as an accessory.  When it becomes the focal point of the day something has gone wrong.  You don’t go seeking “wrong” experiences.  You’d rather them not happen at all, and while you may plan for them, you surely want to minimize those aspects of adventurism.  Wingsuit pilots don’t get to learn by trial and error.  They skim over the trees so fast they have no time to correct for error.  It takes years of experience in base jumping and reading terrain, in imagining the consequences of changes in conditions, to successfully pull off something like Jeb Corliss’ “Grinding the Crack” experience.  
It continually comes back to experience.  You cannot calculate acceptable risk without experience in environments fraught with risk.  To avoid danger you must be intimate with it.   Danger is woven into the fabric of our lives.  For the most part we are acquainted with it, and have calculated the risks of the mundane and accept them without much thought.  But when we are unfamiliar with a certain flavor of danger we tend to see it as being much more severe than comparable dangers we’ve already ingested and excreted as benign.

I wrote about justifying risk a few years ago.  It was more in the context of putting my children into perceived risk, but it applies more broadly as well.  Ultimately I suffer the consequences of my own choices.  I’m not answerable to you unless I do something that adversely affects you either directly or indirectly.  What I could have said in a very short post, and boiled it all down to is this: you gain nothing from cowering in your house with the shades drawn looking furtively across the lawn with your finger on the trigger of a shotgun.  If you don’t explore the limits of risk in life then you’re just living with debilitating fear.  There is no benefit from fear.
But taking it to the opposite extreme (pun totally intended), I just can’t abide the mentality that the activities I listed earlier are merely the means to an orgasmic end.  One of my deepest pet peeves (second only to the phrase “pet peeves”) is the emotional exploitation of nature.  And what I mean by that is when people rappel off a high cliff only for the adrenalin rush, or when people go whitewater rafting just for the excitement, or when they feel they must be astride some high-speed gas-powered machine going full throttle.  I hate, abhor. . .detest the mentality of turning the outdoors into a great big amusement park to keep us all entertained between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Another question I struggle with all too often: why can’t I just be satisfied with a mundane life?  I don’t mean “mundane” in the sense of being drudgerous, though it certainly can be, but mundane in the sense of being routine, generally uninteresting, and maybe a bit boring.  My calibration is all wonked-up compared to many people in that I am always seeking sensory input until my system gets overloaded and I have to retreat to a place with little input.  Balance is hard for me to find.  But most of my time I suffer from a lack of input.  I bore easily.  Its hard to keep my attention trained on the four walls of a cubicle.  

On my way to the summit of Rogers Peak, Mount Evans Massif
before work one morning.  Think I was productive that day?
But why can’t I intellectually accept the normal mundane life of my contemporaries?   I exhaust myself.  And yet I struggle to let go of the urges to go full throttle (under human power, of course).  This isn’t something I can easily answer, but I may touch on it more in the next post in the series.
But like myself, I think many of those that get labeled as “adrenalin junkies” have merely systematically and deliberately desensitized themselves to adventure.  Some go to the. . .ugh, still best word to use. . .extreme and push the limits of what’s humanly possible.  And some, like Dan Osman and others I can’t quickly remember, die pushing those limits.  I have no desire to die, and because I am sometimes overly cautious I tend to stay well within the limits of what’s reasonable.  And yet still I go beyond what most of the people I know would be comfortable with.  I question myself sometimes when I realize I am somewhere that a lot of people would fear to tread, or would resist the urge to tread in prudence and uncertainty.
All I can say is that I am conscious of every step I take.  I am always aware of my place in space and time and I know when to retreat.  I don’t know everything about everything, but I know my own limits and when to retreat and regroup.  Some of my failed adventures have been the ones I enjoyed most.  And were proudest of how I handled them.
I take from Wendell Berry (as usual) this passage:
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.  It is a journey we can make only by the acceptance of mystery and of mystification—by yielding to the condition that what we have expected is not there.”
It’s a type of journey of discovery that can’t be undertaken with a posse.  In fact, earlier in the book Berry writes lines that resonated with me the first time, and every subsequent time after, that I read it:
“You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place.  It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else.  It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”
I didn’t shape myself around these words, but found them entwined within my mind as being the articulation of my deepest feelings when I discovered them.  I’ve found myself to be just like this.  I go out seeking what the “wilderness” has to offer, to find how I can be changed by it, molded by it, and educated by it; and when I have satisfied my personal quest for understanding I am compelled to take others to those places I have visited to share with them the possibility of discovery and hopefully to share that common bond that Berry mentions.
For me, revisiting a place as a conscious guide is the full culmination of adventure.

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