Why? Why? Why? Why? - the number one question levelled at every outdoorsy professional since the dawn of time. Remarkably, it’s one that others in equally non-conventional walks of life rarely have to ponder, let alone respond to with a worthy yet succinct nugget of wit.
The first neo-explorers got in early and claimed the best answers. ‘Because it’s there’ (Mallory), ‘It is as well for them that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask’ (Herbert) and ‘for the same reason an estate agent sells houses – to pay the bills.’ (Fiennes). It’s worth saying these were all Brits in the twentieth century. They are guffaw-worthy masterpieces to deflect an awkward question.
It’s impossible for a sentient mind dedicating its life to walking in straight lines, clambering up things or bobbing around on large pools of water to not let the same question at least trouble them once.
I didn’t pretend to have the perfect answer at first. In hindsight, the teenage trigger for me was probably competitiveness, attraction to an exclusive endeavour, proving fools wrong, desire to measure against a benchmark, and an urge for change, excitement and new things. In The Long Haul I mostly sidestepped it, but then at least admitted that. In Maybe I laid out a set of similarities with other non-crucial uses of our time that I knew many hadn’t considered. This was a stepping-stone.
It’s ok to start something for one reason and then, with more experience and perspective, realise you weren’t hitting the nail on the head, thereafter adjusting the crosshairs.
I can now identify some more personal, and occasionally very specific, reasons as to WHY I do what I do – why I chose a life which involves struggle, irrational setback, unpredictable income, at times derision from strangers, but equally, freedom, elation at being in special places with special people, and an appreciation of value through hard-won victories. All this when through the pure accident of my birth and sacrifice from my family, my education allowed me potential to become almost anything – most likely, someone in comfort and with wealth through pursuing a traditional city profession. I will endeavour to be brief:
1) Time to think
With the exception of when tackling technical ice, long sledging days on vast snowfields give an equally huge opportunity to really think, away from over-stimulation, and internally debate. The outcomes can be wonderful, or useless, but the latter at least can be left behind with confidence. Those who know me well are aware that these thoughts are being sifted and refined for a later purpose.
2) Becoming good at something
Entirely counter to the wide sweeping and exceptionally shallow aim of the generalist adventurer, who hops and skips from one inexpert calamity to another, or worse, stays within the safety ropes in each discipline and then misrepresents a cycling holiday or adventure package tour as historic. Instead, this is a ‘head down, eyes wide open’ journey to progressively get better at something you happen to be gripped by on a human, emotional level. By chance and a number of random twists and turns in my life, for me this has become travel in the cold parts of the world. This, as an end in itself, can be enough.
3) Making home from chaos
This is really personal and probably a vestige of our primal foundations. I get a kick from finding myself in an uncomfortable, usually cold environment, and through ingenuity or just a good stove, making it slightly inhabitable, or moderately less objectionable. It’s the same today as when I set out a decade ago – often manifesting as a momentary rush of satisfaction.
4) Applying discoveries made now to the future
Legacy is a human obsession in one way or another. Whilst some might unthinkingly dismiss polar travel to previous centuries, they miss the lateral movement of experiences and skills. Polar travellers do not travel as they did a century ago. Granted, a few dress up as Edwardians and others are stuck in the 1990s, but others test, break and invent items, materials and ideas. Pen Hadow suggested that ‘polar explorer’ could be replaced by the term ‘cryonaut’ (sadly that word is already appropriated by the frozen deceased) in a vague alignment with cosmonauts. Learning under pressure in barren landscapes, over time and in small teams, using advanced new textiles and composites, can surely be of some service, especially if undertaken in the proximity of our own planet.
You’ll notice none of these tick the normal cult of adventure boxes – escaping the rat race, discovering an inner positivity/deluded mental crutch, a tenuous charity campaign, raising awareness for something or other, ‘discovering’ oneself. This is no accident.
Have a think. A real one.