Every now and then this one rears its ugly little mug, from elite climbers to everyday peakbaggers. I wonder if it’s only in the UK or whether the outdoors scene in other countries can be just as tribal and witless.
When you do something that is extraordinary to you – when you push your limits, challenge your own preconceptions – there’s 2 ways it can go. When I came back from 9 weeks crossing the Pyrenees by the highest route, a part of me felt invincible. A bodily confidence I’d never experienced, a better understanding of the limits of self, shedding some of the past excuses I’d clung to, I found I’d unmade my bed. The lessons I learnt during that trip have stayed – it was incredibly powerful and I’m not going to disavow it now, or ever. Another part of me was more aware than ever of both strangers and friends who’d helped me cross, the delicacy of some of my footholds (physically and metaphorically – free soloing a chunk of Palas in the dark probably wasn’t my most sensible moment either way), how easily and how often I could have come unstuck, and the all encompassing rainbow effervescence of my mountain world. That part of me was newly in tune with my planet – wholly empathetic and at one with the grain of the land. I felt like I chimed in harmony with the resonant frequency of the universe.
For me now, the trick with my outdoors journey lies in achieving balance between these two. It’s become what every single trip is about, whether for a day, a week or more. Power, and Flow, focusing in and spacing out - both are important. Some give and take, an exchange of energy, working towards better communications between self and surroundings. Balance necessitates tension, to hold these poles together.
But again and again, I see outdoors narratives swamped in the language of the former, a back slapping reaffirmation of indestructibility. We are goaded to ‘make choices’ and ‘pursue dreams’, and those that are bold enough to do so achieve their own kind of immortality. By inference, the remainder are remaindered – the compromised, the falling behind, the failing – you weren’t psyched or stoked enough, you don’t ‘get it’. This chest beating advertorial gibberish floods our discourse, and it’s incredibly destructive and exclusionary. It takes a genuinely in-tune, sensitive soul to return from big decisions on a big face, or a few weeks in the wilderness, and not condemn everyone who doesn’t do that as a coward. It’s understandable, because when someone does these things, it really does appear to be all or nothing, subjectively. We are absorbed into ourselves and our environment completely. I may not be that hardcore, but I do ‘get’ the transformation, the vanishing act.
That doesn’t, however, make me an expert on another life – I can only crawl towards understanding my own. Asserting otherwise displays a marked lack of confidence, even cowardice. Insecure much? This corporatised whistling in the dark runs the risk of poisoning our culture, which is and was traditionally a DiY celebration of personal development and everyday connection with the natural world. It's not all about being 'exceptional'. By reinforcing a club mentality, we’re losing our humility.
Part of this may be the preoccupation and pollution of outdoors media with celebrity, and increasingly, competition – sponsored athletes, ambassadors and races. It’s revealing to me that we don’t get this chatter from mountain professionals – those who nurture other mortals through their outdoors journey for a living. But those we’ve put on pedestals can end up echoing the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and preach the selfish pursuit of individual happiness above all else. When some of these returning adventurers rejoin society they confuse their own experience with everyone else’s. ‘If I could do it, so could you’. From here it’s a short skip from inspirational tough love to kicking them when they don’t. It's not their fault, but these ambassadors really are spoiling us. We all end up in the echo chamber, making the same braying noises about striving and aspiring. Ach, take a day off. Go outside, take a deep breath. It’s also possible that this part of our outdoor culture is just a reflection of the utter self centredness of mainstream politics at the moment – a culture of dog eat dog. It’s certainly reinforcing it.
Of course, people do amazing things. A daytrip to the Peak requires objectively less skill and energy than an expedition to the Himalaya. With that, I have no quarrel. But please, let’s not make it all about ourselves: A daytrip to the Peak for someone who has never left their borough let alone their city might just be as nails as my 2 month bimble over some European hills – in fact, it’s probably a good deal more courageous. And who honestly cares about the weights and measures, whose really counting? Surely what matters is the experiences we have and what we learn from them. To say this isn’t wishy-washy relativism: it’s empathy, and that requires heart, soul and guts too. So, I gotta ask you, punk. Have you got what that takes?