Recently I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be the first to do something. I have become increasingly frustrated seeing expeditions claiming some obscure first.
The video below is an example of a first which is anything from obscure. It has a simple premise – a big mountain and the first team to successfully climb it in winter. I think it is great, filmed on a simple handheld camera. There is a beautiful intimacy in this type of filming – one can feel the cold through the blown out audio of the wind howling and the autofocus of the camera searching through heavy snow. I also like that it is understated – there is no inserted drama and the voice over is sparse and unemotional – for me this just makes it feel even more hardcore.
This rant has been a while in the making and I hope it is not misconstrued.
There is a constant fascination with becoming the first to do something. Every week I see someone who wants to be the first to do something. The first to walk up Kilimanjaro barefoot, the first South African born Indian to climb Everest.It drives me nuts.
Followed closely on the heels of the ever more obscure litany of firsts are people doing expeditions for causes. Sailing around the world for children in Africa to gain access to vaccinations, climbing Everest for the disabled… and the list goes on. Now if people are really honest I think they would say that all they really want to do is go and climb a mountain or cycle around the world. The social awareness follows the desire for an adventure and is seen as a way of securing sponsors or of justifying to friends and family why you want to take a year out of your life and sail around the world. I’m certain that very few people think – “Gee Whiz, I feel the need to raise awareness about malaria, what can I do to make people more aware of this scourge?”…. “I know I’ll kayak around Greenland, that should make people sit up and take notice.”
Now I know this post may sound somewhat bitter and that I am criticizing well meaning people, and that is not my intention. My intention is merely to vent frustration that something as simple as the need to explore has become a product which is sold and wrapped up in false acts of philanthropy. Seriously, if you care that much about vaccinations for children in Africa, then get off you ass and raise money for that and only that. Don’t use other people’s suffering to fund your exceedingly expensive expedition.
It seems that we have forgotten that to travel or to go on an expedition is as much about the act of achieving your goal as it is about personal transformation. Expeditions strip us bare until we can’t hide anymore from who we really are. They make us feel insignificant and fragile while at the same time filling one’s soul with the elation of being alive in such a wonderful world.
In order for this to take place one’s intentions have to be right before they set off on the endeavor. A quote which always sticks with me is from Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia in which he speaks about people paying $80 000 to be guided up Everest and he says “You’re an asshole when you go up the mountain and you’re an asshole when you come down.” Now this might be a bit harsh but there is some truth in it. In a world where experiences can be bought, they lose their real value – just like focusing on being the first to do something insignificant takes away the joy of actually doing that thing for nothing more than the simple fact that it is an incredible thing to do. Obviously there are firsts which do count. Hilary and Tenzing were the first people to the top of Mount Everest (well maybe Mallory was first, we’ll never know…) Amundsen was the first to the South Pole and Robert Swan was the first person to walk to both Poles.
If you love being outside and doing expeditions, believe me you can find a way to do it without the fanfare of contrived firsts or supporting causes which actually gain no benefit from your undertaking. But then again, do you really love being outside in the mountains and on the ocean if no-one is paying attention to you?