Joy of adventure attracts travelers Challenge: Wilderness trips can be dangerous, even deadly, but the rewards of really putting yourself on the line are high.

December 01, 1996|By Nancy Shute | Nancy Shute,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

"One attribute of a high civilization is a development of the spirit of adventure, of the will to experiment."

-- Vilhjamur Stefansson, American Arctic explorer of the early 1900s

Our walrus-skin boat rounded the sharp rocks of Asia's northeastern edge. Over the rolling green swells, I caught sight of the Arctic Ocean. I was exhilarated to be there, grateful to have survived.

It was 1992, and we had set off from Provideniya, a Russian

frontier town, into the Bering Strait two weeks before, 20 Russians and Americans in three boats. Our goal was to travel 275 miles north to the Arctic Ocean, but we didn't know if we'd ever get there.

These waters had been closed for the last half of the century, and no one knew how the Russian army would feel about our traveling freely. The elements were against us, too. The water outside the open boat's thin skin was so cold that the Russians laughed at our life jackets, calling them "body retrieval devices." Wild storms beached us for days on end.

Once I awoke from sleeping on the open tundra to find myself circled by bear tracks as big as dinner plates.

One year later, I rounded East Cape again, this time on the deck of a cruise ship on one of its first forays into the Western Arctic. Where before I'd been constantly cold, I slept in a private cabin; where I'd subsisted on macaroni and murre eggs, I ate smoked salmon and Sacher torte. Where before I'd worn the same clothes for days, I had my hair styled in the ship's beauty parlor. And I longed to be back in the cold, wet, wretched skin boat.

My first voyage up the Bering Strait had been profoundly satisfying because it required risk, uncertainty, challenge and responsibility.

It wasn't too long ago that only a rare few could tackle an adventure: Stanley explored Africa's Congo barely 100 years ago; Stefansson voyaged in the Western Arctic, site of my own travels, in the early 1900s; Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person to climb Mount Everest in 1953.

But in the intervening years, adventure has been democratized in ways that Stefansson and Hillary could never have imagined. Millions of people know how to kayak, backpack, rock climb, scuba dive and back-country ski.

Technologically advanced gear, from self-bailing white-water rafts to polypro long johns, has improved safety and comfort. Suddenly, a run down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, which nearly did in John Wesley Powell when he made the first descent in wooden boats in 1869, has become a reasonable goal for anyone willing to learn good river-running skills -- or hire a good guide. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Big business

Adventure has also become big business: $220 billion worth annually in the United States alone, according to the Adventure Travel Society. Fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle promote serious outdoor adventure and feature socialites with ice axes. Hundreds of adventure outfitters offer thousands of trips, some even promising the summit of Mount Everest for those willing to fork over $65,000.

This commercialization of adventure has fueled a fierce debate in the hard-core adventure community, with leaders such as Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a high-tech outdoor clothing manufacturer, arguing that adventure, as experienced by classic explorers, has been debased.

"An adventure is a screw-up," Chouinard says. "An adventure comes from really fouling up and fighting your way out of it. With organized adventure travel, there's no risk involved. You've paid to eliminate that risk."

Tell that to the members of last May's Mount Everest expeditions, who found themselves fighting for their lives when a storm blew in while they were high on the mountain. Eight people died in the storm, five of them part of two guided expeditions led by Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, two of the world's best mountaineering guides. They were also among the dead.

Jon Krakauer, a climber and writer who was covering Hall's expedition, says the clients made a grievous error in presuming that hiring guides eliminated the risk, that the guides would always be there to save them.

"To my mind, the rewards of climbing come from its emphasis on self-reliance, on making critical decisions and dealing with the consequences, on personal responsibility," Krakauer, 42, wrote in Outside magazine.

Everest taught the climbers, brutally, that you abdicate responsibility at your own peril. The best guides in the world couldn't make Everest safe.

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