A woman marches into the ranks of British daredevils

May 16, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- This is a land of daredevils. It is impossible t know what they will do next.

Tomorrow, the first British woman is expected to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Just 10 days ago the first woman of any nationality (not counting Inuits, who don't keep records of such things) reached the North Pole by foot.

Tom McNally completed the first crossing of the Atlantic in a boat the size of a bathtub, 5 1/2 -feet long, last Monday. He left Sagres in Portugal and after four months at sea arrived in Puerto Rico.

It was advertised as the smallest craft ever to finish such a journey. It was half a foot shorter than the former Liverpool teacher himself.

Is this adventure or just dubious achievement? Is there a scientific justification for such feats, or is it motivated mainly by a desire for self promotion, to get into the newspapers and a line in a record book or two?

When Ranulph Fiennes and Michael Stroud walked across Antarctica in February, few could find much reason for it, except the one offered by the shrunken Sir Ranulph after being lifted off the Ross ice shelf. He wanted to write books about his experience and make money.

Robert Swan, the Briton who led the 11 men and lone woman, Nicky Cole of London, on their abbreviated 120-mile walk to the North Pole, also has walked to the South Pole. Reportedly he does it to impress women at parties.

Some of these feats do have the suggestion, if not the actuality, of heroism, possibly because they recall others carried out in times when the primitive state of technology and travel made them more dangerous.

Which is not to suggest there is no peril attached to them. Everest still claims lives, but it is no longer so intimidating as in the days before Edmund Hillary scaled it on May 29, 1953.

According to the journal, Mountain Review, some 485 people had reached the summit by the end of 1992.

A passel have made it since then. Last Sunday, 37 climbers scurried up.

"The record of 37 climbers is not one to be proud of," said Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, who was on the 1953 Hillary expedition. "They take away from the mystique, the mystery and magic of Everest."

The magic may have evaporated entirely in 1988 when a Frenchman parachuted from the top. Or, if not then, surely last year when two New Zealand travel agents led a group to the top and guaranteed their clients on the trek that they could fax the home office from there.

Some feats have a hint of the ridiculous about them. One can envisage Remy Bricka skiing across the Atlantic on foot floats, pulling his supplies in a raft behind him; or Dwight Collins, crossing in a pedal boat; or Tom McClean in his steel bottle advertising Typhoo Tea. It is almost enough to laugh.

Not all these people are English. Americans are drawn to such stunts, and the Japanese more and more. But in most countries other than Britain, these people are regarded as just brave or foolhardy stunt persons. Here they often are seen as national heroes, almost as the heirs to Sir Richard Burton or Robert Falcon Scott.

Not everybody is impressed, however. Peter Wadhams, the former director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, thinks some of these adventures, "the more outlandish ones," are regrettable, even silly, but concedes that they form part of the context in which real exploration science is carried out.

Dr. Wadhams has no trouble with those who put themselves in great peril for reasons of personal satisfaction, or to collect money for charity, such as his friend Ranulph Fiennes. (In fact, charities, especially if they are well known, have become the main legitimizing reason for more and more dangerous stunts.)

The ones he regrets, he said, are "those who do something on a holiday jaunt" and pretend it is exceptional, or suggest they are entering new territory.

Often the esteem gained from these adventures depends on the public's ignorance of geography.

He mentioned a man who advertised his walk to the north magnetic pole as an exploration achievement. "This is a relatively accessible part of the Canadian Arctic. It is a normal thing for an Eskimo to do on a hunting trip."

It is obvious that more than a few climbers, rowers, pedalers and trekkers are publicity addicts. It is also obvious that the media make choices and celebrate or deprecate achievements of endurance.

Ms. Stephens is Britain's current heroine. Last week the Times anointed her "Britain's Lady of Everest." She is a journalist, which is a glamorized profession in Britain. She is also very attractive, with sweeping auburn hair flowing in the Himalayan wind.

Britons know this by now; they have seen so many pictures of her amid the high ice. She is protected; she has her own cameraman, probably her own hair dryer. Her book, when it comes out, will sell well, and she will be celebrated, do endorsements, appear on television talk shows.

To have all this, of course, she has to succeed. If she doesn't, she will be quickly forgotten.

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