The Adventure Craze

PrintPrintEmailEmailAt 14, 411 feet Mount Rainier with its 26 glaciers stands a magnificent mile above the mountains that surround it. I first saw it some 30 years ago, when I was making a tour of the far West with my family. We drove north from California specifically to visit it and stav in Paradise Inn, which sits high up on the slopes next to the vast alpine Paradise Meadow. It was July, and we knew the meadows would be in flower. As soon as we got to northern Oregon, the weather turned raw and cloudy, too cloudy to see the mountain as we approached it, and it stayed cloudy for several days. When we checked into Paradise Inn, we had still not actually seen the mountain, although we were living for the moment on its side.

We went for a walk anyway, for the meadows were indeed in flower and beautiful even in the fog that enveloped us. We were out for perhaps an hour and climbed to almost 7,000 feet and the tip of the tongue of Paradise Glacier. We were sitting there on some rocks when a young man I remember only as Ron chanced along and asked me if I wanted to go higher. He had been talking to some of the climbers coming down, and they had said that another 2,000 feet would put you above the clouds. He wanted to go; he had only one day there, he explained, and this was it, and it would be nice to see the mountain. But he wouldn’t go alone. It was too dangerous. Would I accompany him?


I had my doubts, but Ron was very persuasive, so off we went, struggling up the snowfield that covered the glacier, up and up, unable to see anything but snow and a few climbers coming down. I was not acclimated to the altitude and had to stop every 20 steps to catch my breath. Ron encouraged me at each stop: Come on, you can do it, it’s not that much farther, I’ll wait for you. He was younger than I was by 15 years, had been biking across the continent, and he was in terrific shape. I was not. But I kept going, and eventually the clouds began to thin out and we could catch glimpses of something above us, white and massive. At 9,000 feet we finally broke into the clear.

And there it was, overwhelming our field of view, huge, splendid, awesome. Mount Rainier. I was rooted to the spot, a twist of rag on the flanks of this giant, elated and fearful, understanding that this was sublimity, this was what the word meant. Then Ron said quietly, “Turn around.” I did, and there, rising out of the sea of clouds, 40, 60, 90 miles away, were Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood.

We stayed nearly an hour. Then Ron told me he had to get back. He had rented his boots from the inn, the office closed at five, it was now a quarter to four. “Have you ever boot skied?” he asked. I had never even skied, but he didn’t think that was a problem; he would show me, he said, and took off down the mountain in great long strides, sliding, “skiing” on his boots. “Lean into it,” he yelled, so I leaned into it, slipping and sliding, falling down, getting up, scared to death, and in 20 minutes we were down off the glacier and in another 40 I was back in our room, my feet sopping wet but more exhilarated than I had been in years. Next time I’m on Rainier, I told myself, I’m going to the top. I would join the 300 or 400 souls who made the climb every year; I would stand on the roof of this extraordinary mountain; I would do it all.

Three or four hundred did I say? The figure is now more than 5,000 (out of 10,000 who make the attempt). Not so very long ago, on sunny days in the summer climbing season, people sometimes had to wait in line to stand on the summit of Mount Rainier; today they must get a permit to go there. We are in the midst of an enormous boom in what the tourist industry calls “adventure travel.” White-collar types like myself who 30 years ago were content with two weeks at the beach are booking fly-fishing tours to Patagonia, kayaking in Glacier Bay, rafting the Grand Canyon. Younger people who seem to harbor no fear of death are parachuting off mesas, hang-gliding off ridgelines, snowboarding in avalanche country. The 350-foot-high cliffs of the Shawangunk Mountains (better known as “the Gunks”) north of New York City fill up every decent weekend with rock climbers. If you can’t get to real cliffs, you can practice on the climbing walls that are becoming more and more popular in sports centers.


The whole country seems bent on getting out there and having adventures, and if you can’t do it, you can read about it. Magazines like Men’s Journal and Outside that specialize in the subject are thriving. The staid old National Geographic Society has launched its own magazine, National Geographic Adventure, to take advantage of what has reached the status of a craze. The New Yorker devoted a whole issue last year to adventure, and one of its editors, Bill Buford, went so far as to spend a night in a sleeping bag in Central Park. Time gave the subject a cover story and wanted to know where this national passion for risking our lives was coming from. Publishers’ lists have jammed up with books about the disaster on Mount Everest in 1996, when eight people died; with survival stories of all kinds; with histories of epic disasters and epic treks.