December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
MORE AND MORE AMERICANS ARE PAYING A LOT OF MONEY TO PUT THEMSELVES IN MORTAL DANGER. WHY? AND WHY NOW?
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.
Death and danger haven’t seemed to rein in this passion for adventure. In 1997, a year after the debacle on Everest, the mountain was just as crowded with climbers. A grueling 12-day event like the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race must turn away more and more would-be entrants every year. Outside magazine reports that participation in races of this type—and there are now 200 of them worldwide—has increased at the rate of 65 percent annually. As I write, somebody is walking alone for 7,800 miles across the Pacific. He walks on small pontoons attached to his feet. He sleeps in a catamaran that he tows behind him. In 1988 the same man walked across the Atlantic. What is going on here? Where has this surge of interest in adventure come from, and where is it taking us? And why now?
Where it comes from is the easiest question to answer, for surely a taste for adventure is as old as the human race itself, a function of an evolutionary development that rewarded risk takers over the timid and the meek. We humans were all originally hunter-gatherers, and the males who ate well (and presumably attracted mates) were those who went up against woolly mammoths and bison and learned how to fight off predators, who left the safety of the cave and went “out there.” Scientists have in fact identified a gene in human beings that might be called the “adventure gene.” Known as D4DR, it is longer, it turns out, in people prone to seeking thrills.
Genetic bases for behavior are, to say the least, controversial, but even if we discount this explanation, there’s no doubt that adventure has a long history, especially in Western civilization, one of whose founding epics, the Odyssey, is essentially an adventure tale. The Greeks were explorers and colonizers, and Western adventurers ever since Alexander the Great have been expanding the horizons of the known world. “Adventure travel” is a long, unbroken thread in the tapestry of Western history. During the Renaissance, it was the West, and only the West, that sent ships into the unknown. Reading about the exploits of explorers and adventurers also has a long history in the West, from the purely imaginary, wonderfully strange Travels of Sir John Mandeville to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast to Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. For a time, the East India Company distributed copies of Hakluyt’s Voyages to its officers. At the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries in England, accounts of voyages and travels were published in greater numbers than any other kind of book. It was during this time that Daniel Defoe wrote The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the grandfather of the thousands of boys’ adventure books that are still being written even now.
It was in America, however, that adventure became most deeply embedded in the culture. This has been, says Martin Green in his book The Great American Adventure, “from its inception and conception, a land of adventure.” Just to get here required crossing an ocean, and from the Letters of Columbus on, we have celebrated the achievement. Until it was closed in 1890, the country always had a frontier to be explored and colonized, a wilderness to be tamed and settled. Many of our legendary heroes were adventurers—frontiersmen and wrestlers of bears like Daniel Boone, explorers like Lewis and Clark, mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jeremiah Johnson, scouts and Indian fighters like Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill, aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and Chuck Yeager, people moving off the map, into the unknown. Adventure is a defining tradition in this country, part of what it means to be an American. We are famous for lighting out for the territory. When Washington Irving came home to America in 1832 after 17 years abroad, one of the first things he did was join a small military expedition into an unmapped area of what is now Oklahoma and write a book about the trip, A Tour on the Prairies. It was as if he wanted to let his American readers know that his long residence in Europe had not rendered him too genteel to make such a characteristically American gesture as riding off into the unknown.
Irving’s trip was not, to be sure, without purpose. He was traveling as the secretary pro tem of a newly appointed Indian commissioner named Henry L. Ellsworth, and they rode with a military escort of Rangers recruited for the trip. Through much of the nineteenth and all of the previous centuries, adventure normally had this kind of utilitarian purpose behind it. Lewis and Clark set out to find a Northwest Passage; the mountain men to pioneer in the fur trade; Captain Cook to see if there wasn’t an Antarctica after all; Amundsen and Scott to explore it. Herman Melville’s great adventure among the cannibals of Nuku Hiva, which he describes in his first book, Typee, was the accidental result of jumping ship from a whaler. He hadn’t signed on in order to have an adventure; he signed on to make a living. Recreational adventure did not take firm hold in America until after the maps were filled in, the frontier closed, the gold and silver mines played out. The spirit of adventure flowed freely in the national psyche, but it expressed itself in activities with practical ends: conquest and gain.
The transition to pursuing adventure for its own sake, which is what characterizes the current adventure craze, was hardly abrupt, however. You can see the germs of what we now call adventure travel in Irving’s book, for example. Whatever the practical purpose of the trip, Irving’s role as “secretary” was really just an excuse to have a good time, and the same was true for many of the Rangers who accompanied him and Ellsworth. Another companion on the trip was a young Swiss nobleman, the Count de Pourtales, one of a growing crowd of European gentlemen for whom American adventures were an exciting alternative to the Grand Tour. The Rangers spent much of their time hunting and fishing; the nighttime camps as Irving describes them were boisterous fun. The count dashed off on his own, hoping to run into Indians. He and Irving chased buffalo and tried, ineffectually, to bring one down. It is clear from Irving’s text that all involved had a grand time. Not the least of the pleasures was the thrill of a possible Pawnee attack.
So with Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840. Dana came from Boston patrician stock. He dropped out of Harvard to go to sea for the altogether practical purpose of resting his eyes, which were beginning to give him trouble, but it never occurred to him or his family that he would make a life on the sea as a common sailor. Seafaring was, of course, a major occupation at the time, and books describing voyages, on whalers, on expeditions, on Navy ships, were plentiful. What makes Dana’s book stand out is precisely this air of doing it to see what it was like, doing it as an adventure, pure and simple. Such a trip was a luxury at the time, possible only for those like Dana who had no need to make a living at sea.
This absence of ulterior motives is the essential ingredient in true adventure travel, and we can see it beginning to emerge in books like these. It appears more strongly in the vogue for climbing mountains, which originated in Europe in the early nineteenth century and began to spread to the United States in the 1850s.
Before that time, nobody had ever bagged a peak “because it is there,” to quote George Mallory’s famous reply to the question of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. People climbed mountains for scientific purposes, carrying barometers to determine air pressure at the top (and thus the elevation) or surveying equipment to fill in the contours on a map. The idea of climbing them for sport was slow to develop. The first ascent of Mont Blanc in the Alps was made in 1786 by a local man named Jacques Balmat, who served as a guide, and Dr. Michel Gabriel Paccard, and when Paccard got to the top, he spent half an hour making scientific observations with the instruments he had brought. It was an American pair, William Howard and Jeremiah van Rensselaer, who first climbed Mont Blanc for no other reason but the thrill of it. Gradually, over the first half of the nineteenth century, climbing Mont Blanc for the thrill of it become more and more fashionable. By the 1850s, it was something the more dashing young gentlemen tourists wanted to try, and even women were going up.
A parallel development took place in this country, and you can see it in the climbing history of Mount Rainier. The mountain was first seen by white men in 1792, when Capt. George Vancouver of the British Navy spotted it on his reconnaissance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and named it for his friend Rear Adm. John Sprat Rainier. The first excursion to the flanks of the mountain was made by Dr. William Fraser ToImie in 1833 to gather alpine herbs; Tolmie had no interest in climbing it.
In July 1857 a group led by a U.S. Army officer, Lt. August V. Kautz, made the first serious attempt to reach the summit. His party gradually peeled off, one by one, on the approaches. Kautz himself got to within some 400 feet of the top, then was forced to turn back. The sun was setting, he had no food and no blanket, and the water in his canteen was freezing up. If he had gone on, he would have had to spend the night on Mount Rainier alone and unprotected.
The two men who in 1870 did finally reach the summit, however, took no instruments and made the climb for the sheer pleasure of it. One was the aptly named Hazard Stevens, who was already something of a hero. His father had been governor of Washington territory, and the two, father and son, had rallied to the Union cause in 1861. The younger Stevens had been badly wounded charging the Confederate lines at the Battle of Chantilly in a desperate rear-guard effort to keep the defeated Union forces from being overwhelmed. His father had died in the same charge. But Hazard had recovered and gone on to become a brigadier general of volunteers, the youngest in the Union Army. And he had won the Medal of Honor.
Philemon Beecher Van Trump was an adventurer of a different sort. He had come West from New York to prospect for gold in Montana and Idaho and had wound up as private secretary to the then governor of the territory of Washington, Marshall F. Moore, who happened to be his brother-in-law. Van Trump had been taken with Mount Rainier the moment he saw it and had determined on the spot to climb it, “if that feat were possible to human effort and endurance.”
It was an open question whether it was. The Indians held the mountain in awe and believed that it would kill anyone arrogant enough to climb it. The physical difficulties were indeed awesome, as Lieutenant Kautz had discovered years before. Just getting to the base of the mountain could take a week. The forest floor was dense with underbrush and littered with huge fallen trees, trails were poor, the country was rugged in the extreme. Nobody had modern mountaineering equipment in 1870, and almost nobody in the United States had mountaineering experience; mountaineering was largely a European phenomenon, still confined to the Alps. As it happened, Van Trump and Stevens went to the mountain in the company of an English gentleman, Edmund Thomas Coleman, who owned one of the very first ice axes and a set of “creepers,” what we now call crampons, fixed to the boots for traction on ice. Coleman had climbed in the Alps, he was an original member of the British Alpine Club, and he had written about his experiences. He at least was as prepared as one could be at the time. But neither Van Trump nor Stevens had creepers or an ice ax, although they did end up with Coleman’s, who failed to make the climb. He got lost somewhere in the approaches to Mount Rainier, and Van Trump and Stevens left him behind.
The two men went on alone, striking out early on the morning of August 17, from a camp located at the tree line, stopping after every 70 or 80 steps to catch their breath, crossing the ledge under Gibraltar Rock, where the fall of rock was a constant danger, digging steps up an ice chute where the falling rocks were even bigger, finding their way over or around crevasses. Near the top they had to crawl along a ridgeline because the wind was so strong it would have blown them off it had they stood up. After reaching the summit, they spent the night sleepless, huddled next to a steam vent (Mount Rainier is an active volcano) to keep from freezing to death, sheltering as best they could from the wind. The next day Van Trump fell coming down; it took him two months to recover from his injuries.
It was an isolated success. Climbing for fun was still in its infancy. The only other successful climb in this period was made later that same summer, when two geologists working for Clarence King came up from his surveying party, then exploring the Sierra Nevada, and climbed Rainier in order to try, once again, to determine its exact height. No one else made an attempt on the mountain until 1883.
But then things began to change. The Northern Pacific Railroad was bringing more and more settlers to the region; settlement in southern Washington began to stretch east of Tacoma toward Mount Rainier. A man named James Longmire who owned a mineral spring near the base of the mountain opened a hotel and improved the trail to the mountain itself. People began to climb to the alpine meadows high up on the slopes and to name them: Paradise Park; Elysian Fields. In 1888 John Muir climbed Rainier and wrote glowingly about it: “Out of the forest at last there stood the mountain, wholly unveiled, awful in bulk and majesty, filling all the view like a separate, newborn world, yet withal so fine and so beautiful it might well fire the dullest observer to desperate enthusiasm.” In 1890 a schoolteacher named Fay Fuller became the first woman to make it to the top; she, too, wrote about her triumph. Alpine clubs were formed in both Oregon and Washington. After 1890 excursions to the summit took place almost every summer, and these had no other purpose but to get to the top. By the mid-1890s, people were starting to talk about making Mount Rainier a national park. By 1899 it was done. Mount Rainier was now a tourist attraction.
A century later, climbing Mount Rainier is such a common experience that few would call it an adventure, even though the mountain holds its dangers and people occasionally die on it. But anyone with any ambition wants more, wants to bag Aconcagua in the Andes, Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, Denali in Alaska. Until 1950 no more than 100 people a year summited Rainier. These days about 100 attempt Mount Everest every May. The numbers of people pursuing adventure is unprecedented, and we have to ask, Why now? Is there a reason for this sudden flush of adrenaline into the national bloodstream?
One reason must surely be that no major war is draining it off. The United States has been at peace for nearly 30 years; how else, then, to risk one’s life but to climb Denali, dive Belize? War and adventure have always been twins. One of the great surges of British exploration came after the Napoleonic Wars, when the Royal Navy no longer had much to do. Rather than leave its officers, men, and ships idle, the Admiralty sent them out to discover, among other things, the mouth of the Niger and the eternally elusive Northwest Passage.
A similar surge of adventure in this country came after the Civil War. It was then that John Muir scrambled into the Sierra Nevada, then that the national park system began to take shape, then that sailing turned into yachting and Joshua Slocum cruised alone around the world. Mark Twain turned west even before the war was over to try his luck in Virginia City. Books for boys celebrating a life of derring-do arose and flourished, as did the dime novel. Hiking clubs were established in the East, the Boy Scouts were founded to train boys for the outdoors, gunslingers and Indian fighters became national heroes, and masses of people followed Twain west to seek their fortunes. War transfers these energies to itself. Perhaps at no time has this been more obvious than during the Spanish-American War, when Theodore Roosevelt organized the Rough Riders and did his best to make war seem a great bully lark.
Prosperity also encourages the spirit of adventure. You cannot go sea kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands just south of Alaska or climb the remote tepuis in Venezuela without discretionary income. We are now enjoying one of the most prosperous periods in our history. We are also confined, most of us, to our desks most of the time. Life in the countryside has an element of adventure built into it. In the woods or on a farm you are much closer to animal life, you’re in the outdoors as a matter of course, you’re exposed to the dangers of weather in a way the urbanized are not. You almost certainly know how to hunt and fish, how to camp out; you probably have some survival skills.
The urbanized have no such outlets, and urbanized is what we are. So we seek out adventure. And we are the heirs of Western civilization; even more, we are Americans, restless and adventurous by definition; our demigods have names like Lewis and Clark, Amelia Earhart, Buzz Aldrin. Yet here we sit, immobilized, staring at computer screens. I myself have been sea kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands. My fellow kayakers were lawyers and scientists, a real estate specialist, a social worker, and a couple of young people not yet ready to settle down. Urban dwellers all.
None of us would have survived a voyage up the Missouri in 1804, no doubt, but we could kayak down Hecate Strait for 10 or 12 miles every day and watch bald eagles passing by, see gray and harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks and marbled murrelets and rhinoceros auklets diving for herring on the water. If we could not lead adventurous lives, we could rehearse them, and it clearly satisfied a need, an ancient and basic human need to test ourselves against the physical world.
Our current peace and prosperity and the closing of frontiers everywhere have channeled this need into what may appear sometimes to be foolish extremes, like paying $70,000 and up for the chance to climb the highest but also one of the deadliest mountains in the world, where dead bodies litter the trails. But do not mock the need. Here in America it is a vital part of our history to go out and explore. Adventure travel has always been a growth industry in this country; the only difference now is that we no longer do it for conquest or gain. Except, that is, to conquer our fears, or maybe some distant mountain. I, for one, have yet to get back to Mount Rainier, and I’m determined to make it to the top when I do. Why? For the feeling. Life becomes dearest to you, and most intense, precisely when you are risking it.