The nature of adventure: embracing risk

The nature of adventure: embracing risk.

Mags MacKean (c)

Many dream of the thrill of stripping life – and all its pressures – to the basics: heading off on a long distance hike. The rewards are in its promise: relying on strength, stamina and the vision to see a route through – to complete a mission of walking from Point A to the finishing line of Point B. Possessions are carried on the back: a canvas shelter, weather-proof gear and sufficient provisions. The pulse of night and day determines where to sleep and when to resume the simple mission of walking. There is a romance in this adventure – choosing to immerse in a wild destination without internet connection or mobile phone access. Everyday roles and responsibilities fall away in the face of immediate challenge. Solitude (managing the incessant mental chatter that replaces conversation), self-reliance (no one to consult or be supported by) and moment-to-moment decisions to ensure safety and freedom are the handrails through arduous endeavour. Who will we be when we’re not a parent, professional or householder with bills to pay and commitments to maintain?MountCook

A long distance hike invites an engagement with the unknown. It is about choosing to face Mother Nature’s unruly and unpredictable medicine. Keeping warm and dry, well fed and watered is of vital concern. “To do lists” and diary engagements driving our routine life no longer have any importance. Everyday freedoms and privileges taken for granted are forsaken – taps and thermostats, gas and electricity, or shops stocked with a wealth of appetising stocks. Everything essential to our survival carries the commodity of weight: a litre of water is a kilo; slow-burning endurance food such as pasta might be bland in a kitchen but the most delicious, comforting essential in the outdoors when exposed to relentless exertion and exposure.

In recent days, the media has picked up on the tragic fate of Geraldine Largay – who was hiking the Appalachian Trail and took a fatal wrong turn. She apparently lost her way after leaving the path to relieve herself. A retired nurse, she was nearing the end of her 2200-mile adventure. Her diaries have revealed she kept herself alive for a month after getting lost. Prone to anxiety and lacking a sense of direction, she might have panicked, setting up camp where her body was found, only two miles away from the a main road that would have reached civilisation – help, hospital and food – within minutes.

This part of the famous North American trail passes through some of the remotest backcountry of all. Despite its length, the Appalachian Trail is not considered a dangerous undertaking. Map reading and technical mountaineering skills are not essential. It is common to pass other hikers and team up with them along the track. In choosing to release files on their search for Geraldine Largay this last week, Maine Warden Service has inspired debate over the risks of solitary hiking, and whether it should be discouraged.

Back in 2003, I navigated my way along the ridge-line of the Pyrenees, the mountain range between France and Spain. It took 72-days, and I was mostly alone. The 550 + mile route traversed valleys the whole way (“what goes up must come down” would be its appropriately exhausting mantra) from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Carrying all my essentials required continual discipline: what should I jettison to lessen the load? 20 kilos – the lightest weight possible for camping, cooking, waterproofs, maps – never felt light. Some of my route followed way-marked pathways – which provided some security, although it was easy to lose them and wander off trail. At some stages two or three days might pass between spotting another soul. An ankle sprain or injury would have left me very vulnerable. Help might not be at hand for days. Storms and lightening strikes were all part of the late summer cocktail. No amount of “I know where I am on the map” then mattered. Shelter and patience were of sole importance.

Was I foolish? Possibly. Did I have sufficient experience to embark on such an adventure – given the narrow margin between freedom and folly, safety and danger, miles from civilisation? No – after all, I had never camped alone for the night, let alone many successive nights in my tent in the middle-of-nowhere.

I also got lost, nearly wandered over a cliff a couple of times in poor weather, got flashed at by a naked man in boots (no hallucination) on the first day of setting off, the Atlantic behind me in sleepy Basque country.

There was no question, luck blessed my many poor decisions time and again during those 72 days. So close to accomplishing her dream, Geraldine Largay was not lucky. Should she have chosen to be alone – especially given her treatment for anxiety and notorious sense of direction?

My take is this: sh*t happens in life – no matter how well planned or deserving we consider ourselves to be. There is no insurance policy if we choose to live fully. Neither is there one if we settle for a life that doesn’t inspire us.

Adventure means embracing the unknown and accepting full responsibility for choosing to take that risk. Accidents, freak weather, disorientation and poor choices are part of that risk – that only the individual can weigh against their experience, preparation and fall-back plans.

We can’t ever protect ourselves against the unpredictable in the everyday – let alone during adventure, which is risky in nature. That very riskiness is what elicits the sweetness in such a test. Adventure, whether it’s a long distance hike, booking a solo holiday, quitting a job without a new one lined up is a test of self-responsibility. The consequences can be empowering, liberating, hazardous – or deadly. Following the walking analogy, safety and risk quickly blur when we step off man-made byways, away from civilisation. Time slows and even stops in the boundless thrill of choosing the unknown. Each moment can seem more alive with the fresh discovery of surprise, new sights, sounds and smells. The gift is presence.

In the light of Geraldine Largay’s fate, as the debate rages over solitary adventure, we have to ask, is it better to have a taste of that fullness and vitality – even if life apparently is cut short in the process?

There is no answer to apply to each and every one of us. Only the individual can draw a conclusion – and choose what is reasonable risk over recklessness, safety over complacency. As we barricade ourselves from our wild nature, we can forget the real source of our clothes, food and shelter. Adventure for me has enlivened my respect for the unfathomable impersonal nature of life – so wild and tender, challenging and inviting.

Climbing, roaming, sailing and travelling have brought that knife-edge tango of life and death to the foreground – and made me relish the illusion of security that keeps me comfortable…and sleepy.

Mags MacKean ©