Splitting the Hairs of Adventure
Adventure, as a concept, is becoming diluted. It is used to describe such a multitude of activities that often have little in common that the meaning of the word itself is being lost.
Maybe, like the Inuit with snow or the Maori with rain we need to expand our vocabulary a bit and come up with a host of words to better describe this range of 'adventures' that we're filming, blogging and bragging about, and that are inspiring the great many armchair adventurers out there. For the sake of this article, I'm going to posit that 'True Adventure' needs to be judged on the following criteria: presence of periods of physical risk and/or hardship, presence of periods of psychological arousal and/or hardship, duration, long term uncertainty, the possibility of chronic suffering, and the degree to which it is self-motivated and initiated. If we accept these criteria, and the following definition of 'chronic suffering', then a few things follow:
"Chronic Suffering – suffering associated with thirst, hunger, cold, heat, unmitigable repetitive use joint pain, minor activity based injuries (such as abrasions, sunburn, chafing, blisters, insect bites), or extreme fatigue due to physical labour (heavy packs and/or gear transport); that persists for hours or days at a time."
True adventure, it becomes obvious, has an element of madness to it. The adventurer wilfully places themselves in a situation, for a reasonably long amount of time, that is characterized by a high degree of uncertainty, and that carries with it both physical and psychological risks (and hardship) as well as the non-negligible possibility of chronic suffering. While wilderness isn't required for adventure, it does seem to serve as the setting for a disproportionate amount of adventures, probably because it provides most of the criteria ready made. It seems rather difficult (at least in first world countries) to have an adventure in a truly urban setting simply because chronic suffering can usually be avoided. A final point is the need for self-motivation and initiation. Going to war, for example, should not be confused with adventure because it is not self-motivated. Similarly, survival situations in which a plane crashes in the mountains and the survivors endure a gruelling three day frozen trek to civilization, or a lost hiker holed up in a cave, rationing his remaining muesli bars until the search and rescue chopper flies over him two days later, are not adventure. Yes, they contain many adventurous elements, but in these scenarios the subjects did not choose to pursue a goal with realistic possibilities of such an outcome. True adventure these days, is something rather rare.
I'm not glorifying adventure in the slightest, nor diminishing any of the myriad of activities that are often incorrectly stuck under its umbrella. But in light of these criteria, it's clear that quite a bit of what gets branded 'adventure', probably needs to be called something else. Let's have a look:
Extreme Sports: One good place to start is the differentiation of so-called 'extreme' sports and the idea of adventure. Extreme sports, as far as they are ordinarily carried out by the masses, should not be termed as 'adventures'. Yes, they involve a tremendous amount of skill and often require decades of dedication in the honing of those skills. And yes, they often carry with them a great deal of risk to the participant – landing wrong on the edge of a half-pipe after soaring 20 feet above the lip simply can't feel good. These activities also induce psychological changes – the rush of adrenaline, a state of flow, a heightened sense of awareness – that may also occur in adventure activities. Some extreme sports are also distilled versions of practices that are part of such true adventures--indoor rock climbing has its roots in old school mountaineering for example. But these sports and activities, in and of themselves, lack several of the qualities tantamount to real adventure: duration, long term uncertainty (i.e. not the "can I land the double backflip on skis?" kind), and possibility of chronic (rather than acute) suffering. Extreme sports include, but are not limited to: skiing, skateboarding, surfing, base-jumping, most rock climbing, wingsuiting, moto-cross, parkour, slacklining, sand-boarding, kiiking. And if you don't know what kiiking is, check it out! It's super awesome, but definitely not adventure!
Adventurous Travel: Seeing different cultures, sharing beers with new friends around a bonfire at a hidden Mexican surf break, or wandering the streets of an eastern European bazaar are certainly rewarding and enlightening experiences. Going to new places (especially without bringing along a set itinerary) broadens our perspective and opens us up to all sorts of possibilities – novel experiences, new relationships, and sometimes even unexpected trouble. Sometimes, so called 'adventure travel' can actually lead to an adventure, but more often than not it leads to something that, at best, could be called 'soft adventure'. Risks are usually psychological more than physical (the adventurous traveller can end up quite outside of their normal comfort zone) and even these are often mitigated at the first opportunity. And although there is plenty of long-term uncertainty, it rarely includes the possibility of chronic suffering.
Adventure Tourism: Grab your paddles everyone! We're going whitewater rafting! Or jet-boating. Or canyoneering. Or being guided up Mount Cook! Woo Hoo! Exciting for sure. A True adventure? Not so much. If you can 1) do it as part of a group, 2) pay someone so that you can do it, 3) book it online, or 4) find it in a brochure, it's not adventure. Why? Well, despite what the glossy ads might have you believe, the uncertainty is, with certainty, all but gone. Yes, there is a chance that you flip your boat or get caught in a storm on the mountain, but the outfitter providing the experience (and who is cashing your check) won't really be a big fan of uncertainty and will have minimize it as much as possible. And, if the activity you're participating in is actually a viable enough commercial activity to even support a single company, it is likely not going to meet all of our criteria. This isn't to say that adventures are free, or that if you financially invest in an activity then it isn't adventure – far from it! A self-led trip using hired gear into remote and wild places could certainly qualify, as could something like an expedition in which local Sherpa, guides, etc. were hired to help facilitate part of the excursion.
Adventure/Endurance Racing: This stuff can be brutal. There are so many races out there that cover challenging terrain and take days of effort, that things like expedition adventure racing might seem like it should be considered adventure. And maybe you've got an argument that would make me consider such inclusion (I'd love to hear it!), but as someone who has some experience in adventure and adventure/endurance racing, I can succinctly say that, with perhaps one or two exceptions, they are not the same! Running 100 miles or competing in a several day-long adventure race is certainly very difficult. It serves up mental and physical challenges and provides ample opportunity for (if not the certainty of) chronic suffering. But there is a critical difference in that the uncertainty is chunked out in small portions. Aid stations and transition areas provide opportunity for the event organizers to keep an eye on participants, find people who are lost, and or change the course depending on conditions. It is a subtle difference perhaps, but important. And while the occasional race where teams or individuals are out of contact with race staff for prolonged periods of time, the original AK Wilderness Classic for example, maybe should qualify as adventure, the others should not. Again, this distinction does not minimize the value or achievement of those tackling these challenges, it simply classifies them as something other than true adventure.
Ok, so now that we've decided what isn't adventure, what is? Although most of my own exploits certainly don't qualify, I have had one or two missions that satisfied all of the criteria, including this one back in 2005 – a three week packrafting and climbing excursion in the Yukon. Serious mountaineering usually fits the bill, as does most unsupported exploration of the still remote and uncivilized corners of the world. The sea as well still offers great opportunities for adventure - coastal circumnavigations in kayaks or done ground truth trekking style, or even open ocean crossings in small sailboats, row boats, or kayaks.
Yes, there are still plenty of adventures out there to be had. You're just not going to find any of them on those top 100 lists that keep popping up in your twitter feed.