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What Would Shackleton Think of Modern "Adventurers?"

It was time for a rematch with a slot canyon that I love. Well, it isn't exactly a slot canyon in the Utah red-rock sense of the word. Actually, it's creepier because it is a steep gash in packed dirt, with layers of gravel every couple feet; except that it seems too hard for dirt, and too soft for rock.

The gash is only about 75 feet high. It seemed to be cleaned out -- deepened -- compared to last time.

Believe it or not, the photograph shows my limit of penetration. Physically it was possible to walk another hundred feet, and I would have done so if it had been real rock. But the idea of the "angle of repose" kept spooking me out.

Ah well, I walked out of there and had a good chuckle about myself. It accomplished a little something. It seems that any time nature affects you in something other than the standard scenery-tourist way, you have experienced something real, non-trivial, and memorable.

But it is humbling to the extreme to look at a little experience like this with historical perspective. I am currently reading "Shackleton," by Roland Huntford. Bad timing! It is a biography of his entire life, not just the famous "Endurance" debacle. 

On his second trip to reach the South Pole, a few years before the Endurance debacle, Shackleton and his men were the first to use the route up the Beardmore Glacier.
"Glacier" hardly conveyed the feeling. This was a monstrous estuary of ice, 30 miles wide and over 100 miles long.

The headwaters of this monster were hard to conceive. There was a sense of irresistible, pent-up power behind its forms, like a tide caught in a moment of full surge.

The first day on the glacier they began to feel like true discoverers. Nothing had prepared them for the sensations by which they now were overwhelmed.

Without crampons, each step was an essay in uncertainty... 

Worse still was the mystery of what lay ahead. One thing at least was clear. The sheer size of the glacier hinted at the mass on which it fed. Shackleton was heading for a vast ice cap [over 10,000 feet in altitude] on which the Pole would probably be found.

The blue ice of the days before had given way to snow in one of its most treacherous forms; a thin, brittle wind crust that looked solid to the eye. It masked the crevasses, so that day after day everyone repeatedly broke through, saved only by their harnesses from falling into the fathomless pits below.

They did this without knowing the cause of scurvy or the word, vitamin. Unlike us, there was no
  • GPS coordinates, wireless, or weather forecasts. 
  • hooded parkas or good boots.
  • goretex, polartec fleece, nylon and polyester.
  • modern pain-killers, aspirin, or penicillin. 
  • quickie, dehydrated "backpacker" foods.
They didn't even have skiis, dogs, or dogsleds! They tried to use ponies.

And yet they were the first men to discover the glacier, climb it with no fatalities, and trudge halfway to the pole on the high polar ice cap. 

Where does that put you and me? We're still a little higher than an earthworm, I suppose. Although it is almost too bleak to contemplate, let's honestly confront our puniness these days; not for the sake of wallowing in self-criticism and unworthiness, but for the sake of seeing the Big Picture of what we are and where we could go.

I would rather focus on 'where we could go' than 'should', since the latter might be impossibly long-winded.

I really can't get any further tonight. I am too weak and puny against a vastness of a different type than what a person usually thinks about. 


XXXXX said…
Good one. I'm not familiar with Shackleton but I get the point and agree. How you describe his experience would be true of all the thousands of explorers in history. For many of them, they were driven by need and greed. Better to take the chance than live the life they had. Drought, hunger, cold, etc. drove them in many cases.
I was just reading a book that talked about the marvelous advances since the beginning of the industrial age and how life was hard and short for thousands of years before that. Now we have exploded into this modern age. What has caused that to happen? But we do fool ourselves that we have beaten forces and now control things. Only for awhile I fear.
We are largely living off energy this earth has stored for millions of years. As people we use much more than 1 days worth of energy for every day that we live now. Can we beat this with replacements, such as nuclear and solar or wind or whatever, which will allow us to continue this lavish lifestyle? Who knows?
You live a pretty Spartan life by most standards but think of would your life have to change if there was no gasoline? If you depended on horses which you then had to care for, could you continue your lifestyle?
As for me, I am way overboard and I know it.
XXXXX said…
I want to add that I think it took a bit of luck to be successful since, as you pointed out, the odds were greatly against them. Modern tools lower the risk. But there were countless who were not so lucky and have been lost to history. One good storm, a fall through the ice, etc. and it was over.
A bicyclist could adapt to the end of the cheap energy era much easier than most people would. I might consider becoming a mountain bike tourer, with a small trailer behind the bike.
XXXXX said…
I don't know if it's that easy. You'd have to carry food, maybe water, tools for bike repair, equipment to cook, etc. Very cold at night, etc. And then trips down the mountain to replenish the relatively small amount of supplies you could carry on a trailer small enough that you could tow going uphill.
I think it's easy to forget our puniness, as you called it. Several generations later, after those who were really tough, and we don't have an accurate picture anymore of what it takes to really live off the land. It was hard. Unbelievably hard and that is, I think, why the motivation and the willingness to risk death, trumped the fear.
I do so agree that we are puny and so agree with the reference to the Big Picture.
Ed said…
I continue to read some RV bloggers and can not remember when any one of them described their trip or how they lived as being an adventure (well perhaps as a passing thought). But without fail there is a bevy of Comments that are raving about the adventure that the blogger is having and that they simply can not wait for the next adventure.

The word "adventure" has lost its meaning in our culture along with so many other words. I think there is blogging material in that thought.
RVers use "adventure" in the title of their blog.

"Adventure" is a cliche in the tourist literature, along with "quaint charming Victorian inn", "a profuse carpet of desert wildflowers blanketed the mountainside", "a breathtakingly beautiful sunset", etc.
John V said…
Don't fool yourself KB. In an extreme situation where fuel or electricity became scarce or not available a large percentage of the population would die simply because they couldn't feed themselves or obtain clean water. Those reliant on pharmaceuticals to survive would die when they became unavailable or spoiled from lack of refridgeration (ie., anyone requiring insulin). Our society would be turned on its head and all of our lifestyles would change dramatically. Any travel would be expensive at best and extremely dangerous. There would be no "touring" by bicycle or other means, unless you were part of a local armed militia or the military. You can't even adequately plan for such Black Swan events if you don't already live a lifestyle that is independent of these "necesities" (which I doubt any of us do live). We may all be self-sufficient to some degree, but that doesn't matter when everything else is falling apart around you.
John V, have you been reading Zero Hedge again?
John V said…
What's Zero Hedge?
Nevermind, I'll Google it!
My point was that the US population is now so dependent on and takes for granted things like electricity and affordable fuel. Lacking these two things, society quickly falls apart. This wasn't the case during Shackleton's time or even as recently as 70-80 years ago. Just look at what happens when the grid goes down somewhere. We as a nation have a very fragile supply chain upon which almost everyone is dependent. That supply chain runs on electricity, fossil fuel, and union employees....three weak links in the chain!
I don't think you'll get any arguments there. What's weird is that an average person never thinks about any of their dependencies on water, electricity, etc.
Anonymous said…
Hey Kabloonie have you read The Road or seen the movie version? Ii depicts an extremely grim future after some unamed catastrophic event where the only realistic chance of survival is developing a taste for human flesh!
xNateX said…
It's nice that in the big scheme of things, human beings have made the human experience easier for those that came after.

I look up at the stars and see no end to adventure. We all know earth is home. I happen to believe space is too. Getting from here to there though, now there's a worthy challenge.

But the adventures will continue. Or whatever one wants to call them.