THE BBC Scotland telly programme last night about the Scottish mountains in winter was, I thought, very well done and could only really be criticised for perhaps trying to cover too many issues – scientific analysis about why last winter was so cold; a lot about what causes avalanches and perhaps too little about the human element.
What is it that drives so many of us to the winter hills in the first place? But perhaps that was evident in the superb shots of winter mountains.
Like all good television documentaries it made me think, and it made me consider that curious question about risk and how we regard it, and indeed what exactly is adventure?
That’s a question that’s consumed mountain writers for generations, and continues to do so. The usual dictionary definitions tend to be unsatisfactory – my own dictionary simply defines it as a “bold undertaking” but in the context of mountains and exploration and journeying in remote and wild places adventure is surely something more than that.
In a book I wrote a few years ago, The Wilderness World of Cameron McNeish (forgive the plug) I related the tale of a week-long backpacking trip in the back country of Yosemite National Park in California.
At one point on that trip I managed to get myself into some difficulty on what I thought was a fairly easy rock scramble, but turned out to be much harder than I anticipated. I was in a situation where I was on my own, miles from any help, climbing up a steep and rocky ridge I had realised I couldn’t reverse.
I managed to clamber my way through that situation, more by luck than anything else, but through the subsequent sense of achievement, the awareness of overcoming fears and doubts and objective dangers I was very aware of something else. I enjoyed a sense that not only had I been in control of the situation but had been capable of exercising that control in a situation that had been potentially hazardous, possibly fatal.
I realised that it’s only when the outcome of such a situation is in doubt and when you’re in a position to actually influence the outcome, that you really begin to appreciate whether you had been in control or not. That, I decided, was a pretty good definition of adventure.
I’m asking the question because I’ve been reading a book called The World’s Great Adventure Treks but the editor doesn’t really succeed in offering a definition of the term. He suggests that “an adventure is something that an individual chooses to do, and any risk involved is self-imposed – so the individual decides what level of adventure or risk he or she is willing to accept.”
That’s a pretty woolly definition and I would contend that it is a wholly erroneous definition but I suppose in the context of such a book the editor feels he can afford to be fairly elastic with the term, after all, one man’s wilderness is another man’s roadside picnic. In this sense, one man’s adventure is another man’s walk in the park.
And that, in essence, is what The World’s Great Adventure Treks, and similar books, are all about. It’s a packaging job, the gathering of words and pictures and presenting them in a glossy and attractive format to sell the idea that trekking in these far-flung corners of the world is a walk along the edge of danger where you can push yourself to your own self-imposed limits. It’s all very commendable apart from one thing – it ain’t adventure!
You can’t guarantee adventure. You can’t sell it like a commodity and you certainly can’t package it in a book. The outdoors and travel industry has to learn the difference between “adventure” and “simulated adventure” because most of the time we’re being spoon-fed the latter.
Youngsters rarely get the chance to experience real adventure these days because they’re not encouraged to get into situations in which the outcome may be both potentially dangerous and in some doubt.
Outdoor centres have their hands tied because of the spectre of litigation that hovers over them and operators are well aware that one mistake could have them serving a term in gaol – the results of nanny-state politicians who have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Adults don’t fare any better and we have to understand that instruction courses on mountaineering or canoeing or whatever only prepare us for adventure, but isn’t adventure in itself.
The same goes for so-called Adventure Treks. I’ve led a number of such treks throughout the years, and only very occasionally have I experienced what I’d consider to be adventure. The trekkers usually have a great time and from time to time have pushed themselves close to their own personal limit but as the trek leader I’ve always done everything I can to minimise risk.
With back-up from the trekking company I’ve always done everything to make the treks as safe and as enjoyable as possible, but, having said that, there is always the possibility that events could transcend those safety precautions and the eventual outcome of our journey could have been cast into various shades of doubt. We only enter the realm of adventure when those doubts become apparent.