In May of 1989, a 28-year-old American rock climber named Lynn Hill was climbing a limestone cliff in the south of France. Gripping holds no bigger than the edges of matchbooks, she confidently made her way to the top of the short, steep crag. There she let go of the rock, intending to rest her full weight on her rope so that her partner could gently lower her down. But as she leaned back into space, she made a horrifying discovery: For some reason, she hadn't tied her rope completely to her climbing harness. The loose end of the rope slipped out of her harness, and Hill began to plummet toward the rocks, 72 feet below.
"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing," Helen Keller wrote. Growing numbers of people today aspire to live by that edict. In the midst of our plush-lined, drive-thru lifestyles, people still crave experiences that are more intense—more direct and authentic—than those available at the multiplex or shopping mall. Some find these moments in adventure sports like climbing, mountain biking, and white-water kayaking. And, like Lynn Hill, they often accept grave personal risk in exchange for personal challenge. Others find adventure vicariously: Books, movies, and television shows about the explorer Ernest Shackleton and disasters on Everest are a growth industry.
Adventure, in short, is hot. But what exactly is it? The marketers who use images of mountain bikers and rock climbers to sell SUVs and soft drinks aren't much help. Today everything is "extreme," adrenaline is the sought-after high, and risk—especially the risk of serious injury—is celebrated as an end in itself. Yet if you talk to rock climbers, surfers, explorers, and the like, they don't mention adrenaline rushes. And aside from a bit of black humor, they usually don't say much about the risks they face.
What they do talk about—to the extent that one can find words for these things—is the much deeper, almost spiritual role that these pursuits have in their lives. When a surfer says he was "one with the wave," it may sound like surfer-dude heavy-osity, but in fact he's trying to convey a genuine experience: the Zen-like sense of total engagement with the world that these sports demand. You come out the other end knowing that, for those few seconds or minutes, you have lived purely and absolutely.
Against all odds, Lynn Hill survived her fall from the crag in France. In her autobiography, Climbing Free
, she describes her recovery as a kind of awakening. "It was time to pay attention not just to how I climbed, but to how I lived," she writes. Hill continued climbing—more attentively perhaps, yet with even greater intensity. But why? For Hill, one answer was in the pure experience of climbing. "I was simultaneously acutely aware of both everything and nothing," she writes of one difficult ascent. "I was so immersed in the passage of movement that I felt no sense of time, gravity, or existence."
That sense of being totally engaged can be true on a moment-to-moment level, as in surfing or rock climbing, but it can also be true on the time horizon of an entire life. Two of the greatest living explorers are Bradford and Barbara Washburn. Brad began climbing, photographing, and mapping the mountain ranges of Alaska in the 1930s. In 1947 Barbara became the first woman to climb Mount McKinley. They have explored, photographed, and studied all over the world. Brad turned 93 this year, and Barbara is in her late eighties. If their 62-year marriage doesn't sound like a life of adventure, I don't know what does. But the Washburns' goal has never been the self-centered pursuit of thrills. Their attention is focused outward, on understanding the natural world and being willing to accept it on its own terms. Physical risk is often part of the bargain in such adventures—but not the most necessary part.