Dear Self-Proclaimed Adventurers,
1) It's October 24th 1901, at Niagara Falls. It is Annie Edson Taylor's birthday. She has decided to attempt to be the first person ever to survive a trip over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. The falls are 156 meters high. She just turned 63 years old. She is a widower. She's had a custom barrel made out of oak and iron and put a mattress inside it for comfort. She tested the concept two days before now by putting her cat inside it and sending it over the edge. It was a kitten and it survived and 17 minutes later posed for a photograph with Annie.
Today Annie gets in the barrel, along with a heart-shaped cushion. It's her lucky charm. Friends use a bicycle pump to fill the barrel with air, and then put a cork in it in the hope that it'll remain pressurized at 30 PSI. She is set free from the side of a rowing boat upstream and the current carries Annie over the falls.
Rescuers find the barrel with Annie in it a few minutes later. People are doubtful, of course. If you've seen the falls then you know how ridiculous the thought of floating over them in a barrel is. But like her cat, Annie is alive and relatively unscathed, other than a small cut to her head.
She would later say, "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat... I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall." Some people would argue that she needn't have gone over the side of Niagara Falls in a barrel to come to this realization.
2) It's 24th January 1943 at British Prisoner of War Camp 354 in Nanyuki, Kenya. When the clouds break, Mount Kenya appears in the distance. Three Italian prisoners, Felize, Giovanni and Enzo, have for months been hoarding food as rations, sewing makeshift rucksacks and clothing, and scavenging for scrap metal to use as homemade ice axes and crampons. They've become sick and tired of the monotony that prison life offers. Life in camp is boring not brutal. They leave a note saying they'll be back in two weeks and set off to attempt to climb the mountain, using a map they've sketched on the back of a food tin.
They escape by taking advantage of the relaxed vegetable gardening duties they've been tasked with, and using a key that's been moulded in tar. They dig up supplies they've buried in the tomato patch. No-one notices them leave, so no guard fires a bullet into their backs. Then they begin the journey to the base of the country's highest mountain. Days up riverbeds and through dense jungle, precariously avoiding animals like rhinos and leopards and charging elephant bulls.
When they make it to the mountain, they risk freezing to death with inadequate equipment, and starving to death with an inadequate amount of food. Enzo gets too ill to continue so the other two carry on, leaving him at the base. On the climb, they face rotten snow and mini-avalanches. They can't communicate with each other because the wind is so strong.
They reach a part of the mountain and realize they can't go on anymore because of fear of death. It's Point Lenana, a small peak just 200 meters below the summit. They plant a homemade Italian flag and begin the descent in the same conditions, back to the POW camp where they've come from.
When they return 18 days later, there is no glory waiting for them. As punishment, they are all sentenced to 28 days in solitary confinement, until the camp commander reduces that to 7 days because of their 'sporting effort'.
3) It's August 12th 2000 and four American rock climbers are climbing on The Yellow Wall in the Kara-Suu valley of Kyrgyzstan. Tommy, Beth, John and Jason hear the first gunshots rattle past them at 6.15am. They shout 1,000 feet below, but the gunmen order the group to come down immediately. They draw straws to decide who should go down but John volunteers. From the portaledge, the group watch what happens through a 200mm camera lens. John radio's up and tells them that the gunmen are requesting that everyone comes down. The group sense that something is seriously wrong.
The two gunmen are Abdul and Obert, who turn out to be rebel soldiers in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. All the climbers descend and are marched to base-camp where they meet two more people. Su, another rebel. And Turat who had pleasantly checked their permits a few days ago. He
was a Kyrgyz Army soldier, but had been taken prisoner by the rebels. The three colleagues Turat
was originally with were executed in front of him by his captors.
Abdul orders they will all walk to Uzbekistan, where there is safety for the rebels. It's 50 miles north. They walk over valleys and up ridges, until at 3pm there's a gunfight between the captors and local Kyrgyz soldiers. During this fight the captors execute Turat in front of the Americans. Tommy accidently sits on his lifeless arm and the rebels laugh at him.
For four more days they continue through the mountains. Hunger turns to cramping. Jason and Tommy come to the conclusion that they're now prepared to do whatever it takes to get out of this situation because after Turat's murder it's clear negotiation won't work. The rebels leave Su in charge of keeping the Americans hostage. The group climb a ridge. The plan is for everyone to rendezvous on top. With just one rebel now, Tommy climbs up to Su, grabs the AK-47 that's strung around him, and throws him off the rock. Su hits a ledge 30ft down, and then rolls off the 1,500 ft cliff into the darkness.
Tommy can't cope because he thinks he's just killed a man. He asks his girlfriend Beth 'how can you love me now? After I did this?'. They stumble 18 miles back to a Kyrgyz army base. They're shot at by rebels again, but eventually are greeted by Kyrgyz soldiers who hand them tins of food and water. They have escaped.
Three true stories. Adventure should be about seeking out an experience that calls out to your own unique soul. It can be anything, but it shouldn't be about winning an award or appearing in this years National Geographic as 'Adventurer Of The Year'. You should be there, doing what you're doing, even if there was no such thing as media or The Huffington Post.
I hate being cynical about this, and of course times change. Of course it's not the same now that so many people have climbed Everest, cycled round the world or rowed the Atlantic. Of course things are different now that it's not World War 2 and we have email and magazines and GPS and the ability to search for information with a click. Of course it's ironic that you're reading this on the blog of someone who works for magazines. Of course having a title could be viewed as a
commercial necessity just as much as if you're a retail manager or a chef or a management consultant or a teacher. Of course you don't have to conduct a grand escape, throw a rebel soldier
off a cliff or squeeze into a barrel with your fingers crossed to have an adventure.
But please can we get rid of this look-at-my-adventures-and-how-epic-they-are egocentric and formulaic bullshit that is rife and is based around media and self-image. Maybe a good guide is to always ask yourself - if no-one knew about this, would I still do it? We should remember that relatively speaking, self-proclaimed adventurers generally don't do things that are more adventurous than other authentic moments that have taken place throughout history.
My problem isn't specifically with the word adventurer as much as what it seems to have been diluted to, what it represents now, and how willing people are to reach out and take it. More and
more people use it to describe their career, because they've done a big walk or bike ride or climbed a mountain. Congratulations. But shouldn't it be earned, not taken? It should be earned over a lifetime, or at least many years and many accumulated experiences. People should be given their title by other people. For walking the walk, not talking the talk.
The world would be a way more fun place if more people sailed the seas, searched ocean floors,
explored jungles, went to the moon, climbed mountains, descended rivers or just did things that
called out to them like going cycling for a few days or running a marathon or rollerblading to work
or whatever. But the world would be way more tiresome, cringe-worthy and annoying if those who
did those things consistently referred to themselves as adventurers.
Please keep going on adventurous trips, doing adventurous projects, living an adventurous life or
career. Do things that have been done before and things that haven't. Risky things and safe things. Common things and bizarre things. Those things can change your life and add value to the world, you already know that. But please, please, consider honestly evaluating the reasons behind doing what you're doing and the real meaning behind your self-set title. If you're dead-set on being something, then earning the title beats preaching it in the hope that people will believe you.
Or maybe words don't really matter and aren't worth getting stressed about.
p.s. barrel projects can be dangerous so take a cushion
p.p.s. The podcast version of this post can be found at Vague Direction.