"One attribute of a high civilization is a development of the spirit of adventure, of the will to experiment."
-- Vilhjamur Stefansson, American Arctic explorer of the early 1900s
Our walrus-skin boat rounded the sharp rocks of Asia's northeastern edge. Over the rolling green swells, I caught sight of the Arctic Ocean. I was exhilarated to be there, grateful to have survived.
It was 1992, and we had set off from Provideniya, a Russian
frontier town, into the Bering Strait two weeks before, 20 Russians and Americans in three boats. Our goal was to travel 275 miles north to the Arctic Ocean, but we didn't know if we'd ever get there.
These waters had been closed for the last half of the century, and no one knew how the Russian army would feel about our traveling freely. The elements were against us, too. The water outside the open boat's thin skin was so cold that the Russians laughed at our life jackets, calling them "body retrieval devices." Wild storms beached us for days on end.
Once I awoke from sleeping on the open tundra to find myself circled by bear tracks as big as dinner plates.
One year later, I rounded East Cape again, this time on the deck of a cruise ship on one of its first forays into the Western Arctic. Where before I'd been constantly cold, I slept in a private cabin; where I'd subsisted on macaroni and murre eggs, I ate smoked salmon and Sacher torte. Where before I'd worn the same clothes for days, I had my hair styled in the ship's beauty parlor. And I longed to be back in the cold, wet, wretched skin boat.
My first voyage up the Bering Strait had been profoundly satisfying because it required risk, uncertainty, challenge and responsibility.
It wasn't too long ago that only a rare few could tackle an adventure: Stanley explored Africa's Congo barely 100 years ago; Stefansson voyaged in the Western Arctic, site of my own travels, in the early 1900s; Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person to climb Mount Everest in 1953.
But in the intervening years, adventure has been democratized in ways that Stefansson and Hillary could never have imagined. Millions of people know how to kayak, backpack, rock climb, scuba dive and back-country ski.
Technologically advanced gear, from self-bailing white-water rafts to polypro long johns, has improved safety and comfort. Suddenly, a run down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, which nearly did in John Wesley Powell when he made the first descent in wooden boats in 1869, has become a reasonable goal for anyone willing to learn good river-running skills -- or hire a good guide. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Adventure has also become big business: $220 billion worth annually in the United States alone, according to the Adventure Travel Society. Fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle promote serious outdoor adventure and feature socialites with ice axes. Hundreds of adventure outfitters offer thousands of trips, some even promising the summit of Mount Everest for those willing to fork over $65,000.
This commercialization of adventure has fueled a fierce debate in the hard-core adventure community, with leaders such as Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a high-tech outdoor clothing manufacturer, arguing that adventure, as experienced by classic explorers, has been debased.
"An adventure is a screw-up," Chouinard says. "An adventure comes from really fouling up and fighting your way out of it. With organized adventure travel, there's no risk involved. You've paid to eliminate that risk."
Tell that to the members of last May's Mount Everest expeditions, who found themselves fighting for their lives when a storm blew in while they were high on the mountain. Eight people died in the storm, five of them part of two guided expeditions led by Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, two of the world's best mountaineering guides. They were also among the dead.
Jon Krakauer, a climber and writer who was covering Hall's expedition, says the clients made a grievous error in presuming that hiring guides eliminated the risk, that the guides would always be there to save them.
"To my mind, the rewards of climbing come from its emphasis on self-reliance, on making critical decisions and dealing with the consequences, on personal responsibility," Krakauer, 42, wrote in Outside magazine.
Everest taught the climbers, brutally, that you abdicate responsibility at your own peril. The best guides in the world couldn't make Everest safe.
The Everest debacle has intensified the criticism from the adventure aristocrats, who insist that any guided trip is a false adventure. That's just not true. It's possible to run the Grand Canyon on a huge motorized raft, floating downstream like a sack of spuds (the trip that so bored former Interior Secretary James Watt that he begged to be taken out by helicopter). Or you can run it on a 15-foot raft, where your muscle power and ability to keep paddling when the terrifying waves of Lava Rapids loom overhead make the difference between safe passage and disaster. They're both guided trips; the former is little more than a bus tour, the latter is an adventure.
Trying something new
Guided trips can be particularly useful for trying something new; mountain biking, say, or hiking in the desert, where not having enough water is more than just inconvenient.
Tim Cahill, who makes his living by chronicling solo escapades in Third World backwaters, strongly recommends guided trips, particularly for novice adventurers. Maybe that's because back home in Livingston, Mont., Cahill, 52, the author of six adventure-travel books, volunteers on the mountain search-and-rescue team. "Search" often means retrieving the bodies of people who ventured into the wilderness without the requisite skills, or who died for the lack of something as simple as an extra sweater.
"Do the guided trip," Cahill says. "Hone your skills, whether it's river rafting or backpacking or snow camping."
And for many of us, just honing those skills is a challenge. Thirty percent of the clients of Sheri Griffith's white-water rafting company in Moab, Utah, have never camped a day in their lives, and most are typical of today's adventure traveler: women in their 40s and 50s who might bring along kids, girlfriends or parents, and who often have little wilderness experience but are eager to try.
"For people who have never camped, it's very risky," Griffith, 45, says. "They're way out of their comfort zone."
Much of her work as a guide focuses on teaching people how not to hurt themselves or the environment, how to be responsible for themselves. As Griffith puts it, "My job is guide, not mother."
Rich rewards, no glamour
She makes a good case that adventure doesn't have to be glamorous. There are rich rewards in adventures that would never rate the cover of a magazine, or even a color postcard. Some rewards come from facing risk, because a risky situation focuses the mind wonderfully. A climber notices the texture and angle of a tiny nubbin of rock because his life hangs on it.
While on the open water of the Bering Strait, I attended each tiny wind shift because my survival depended on how I responded to the weather. As a result of that heightened focus, the world around me became extraordinarily vivid, a Technicolor extravaganza with thousands of colors and textures in clouds and waves that otherwise would have seemed merely gray.
A profoundly satisfying sense of mastery doesn't have to come from fouling up. Just keeping it together in a dangerous, alien environment will do. The triumphs come not in climbing the highest or in logging the most miles but in little things: deciphering maps; concocting an edible dinner out of backpacking chow; traveling cross-country without a trail; weathering delays, disappointments and cranky traveling companions.
If you go
You need to be prepared mentally and physically for an adventure, says Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society, an industry trade association.
If you're considering a trip with an outfitter, Mallett recommends that you:
Ask the state tourism board, national park or national forest for a list of licensed outfitters.
Check the advertisements in magazines such as Outside, Backpacker, Walking and Men's Journal for names of firms.
Once you've decided on a trip, make sure the outfitter's up to the job:
Ask how long the outfitter has been in business.
Get a copy of the firm's insurance certificate and outfitter's permit, issued by national parks and national forests where the firm operates.
Get references from people who have taken the same trip with the outfitter.
Find out if the guides have medical training, and any extra training: as naturalists, for instance.
Be sure the outfitter asks about your medical history, outdoor experience and expectations for the trip. It's the outfitter's responsibility to match you to an appropriate trip.
Pub Date: 12/01/96