Adventure isn't about risk or thrill seeking or proving your mettle—it's about passion.
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.
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.