by Michelle Jana Chan ’96
Extreme adventure is no longer the domain of only bearded, frostbitten explorers. Reaching the Poles, coursing mighty rivers, or climbing the world’s highest peaks is increasingly seen as fair game. We should celebrate that.
The drive towards extreme adventure is not difficult to explain. It is becoming cheaper. Ambitious commercial trips are opening up to a larger market some of the world’s most remote destinations, which are becoming easier to access, too. It is also becoming safer due to a revolution in the quality of technical equipment and personal fitness training. Modern weather forecasting also mitigates risk.
Yet we must not approach adventures casually. We must train, we must invest in decent equipment, and we must not cut corners. Not only for ourselves but for the sake of our fellow adventurers, our guides, and other members of the team. Far too often I have heard travelers talk—almost boastfully—about how little they have done to ready themselves for a trip, whether a physically grueling journey or a big summit. It is not cool to be ill prepared.
When I summited Mt. Blanc, one of Europe’s highest peaks which sits on the border of France and Italy, it was over a long weekend, which is not uncommon, but it is still a challenge which should be taken seriously. It is a tough and, at times, technical climb with the possibility of rapidly changing weather and conditions. Some of the 25,000 a year who try to scale this peak are professionals; some arrive well trained and accompanied by a guide; but there are others who simply try to wing it. That volume of climbers and range of experience has made it the most lethal mountain in the world, claiming more lives than any other.
Africa’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro is also receiving more tourists than ever before: around 35,000 people visit each year, a number that has trebled in the last twenty years. It was young gap-year students who I saw most often carried off this mountain; they might have been fit and strong but they had little idea how to ascend a 5,895m mountain. One Norwegian student suffering from altitude sickness and hypothermia was wearing little more than a cagoule and a pair of Converse trainers, and was mumbling some nonsense about wanting to buy a Masai cow. He was not only putting his own life at risk but also the lives of his guide and porters.
There are mixed feelings about the way extreme adventure is developing, especially in the mountaineering community. Everest, once perceived as the pinnacle, is now seen as relatively achievable. It is certainly an easier climb than twenty years ago; more than 600 climbers reached the summit in 2013. Sure, you have to be physically fit and mentally tough, but some believe one of the greatest barriers today is money rather than preparation.
There are, of course, occasions when it does not matter how well prepared you are. Even experienced acclimatized mountaineers, with the best guide and best gear, can still wind up dead. In truth, for many of us, the element of risk is part of the allure, which is why this is not only a cautionary tale but also a rallying cry to pursue — intelligently and respectfully — your imagination’s wildest adventures.
Michelle Jana Chan is a travel and adventure journalist based out of London, England. Follow her on Instagram at @michellejchan.