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What adventure must have, however, is the risk of failure. If the outcome is already known, one's journey toward it isn't an adventure. It's the element of doubt—concerning both the obstacles you might face and your capacity to overcome them—that makes an adventure. And that uncertainty principle can be apt not just for someone climbing Mount McKinley but also for a person going back to college, playing a concerto, or raising children.

In 1993 Hill turned her prodigious will to what's perhaps the world's most famous rock climb: the Nose of El Capitan, in California's Yosemite Valley. The Nose had been ascended many times, but always by partly using "aid climbing" (a technique in which climbers jam equipment into cracks to hold their weight and help them move up), as opposed to "free climbing" (in which climbers ascend using only their own hands and feet, and rely on the equipment strictly as a safety backup). Hill was determined to climb the Nose entirely "free."

With the rope's protection (and knots carefully checked), the climb wouldn't be particularly dangerous. But it would require Hill to do some of the hardest climbing of her life on a wall that towers 3,000 feet high. After two days of grueling ascent, she and her partner reached a huge overhang, known as the Great Roof, that had stymied all previous free climbs. Twice she attempted it, and twice she had to be lowered back to her starting ledge, defeated. With the sun setting and her strength ebbing, Hill steeled herself for a final try. "Though I realized that I could easily fall in my exhausted state," she writes, "I felt a sense of liberation and strength knowing that this was an effort worth trying with all my heart."

*****

An effort worth trying with all my heart—I can't think of a better definition of adventure. Hill succeeded in climbing past the Great Roof that day, and she made history as the first person to free the Nose. But I suspect that achieving her goal was less important to Hill than the experience of having had a goal that was worth attempting with all her heart.

Because in the end "success" isn't the main point of adventure. (Shackleton is one of history's most admired adventurers, yet all his expeditions to the South Pole were failures.) Those who venture to the edge and come back don't usually brag about having "achieved their goals" or "conquered their fears" or any of those clichés. They know that in the process of undertaking goals that require total commitment, they gained something more important than success: They lived completely.

Have Your Own Adventure!

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