Why are we so fascinated with those who accomplish near-death challenges?
Some say that exploration for the sake of exploration is an exploit from a past time, that today in our modern world it’s just a waste of resources and the reserve of the rich. This ignorance found in warm cosy student flats is the kind of mindset that leads us to lose the purpose of living, to push.
Far from Glasgow’s antiquated West End, on 29 October 2019 Nirmal Purja stepped foot on Shishapangma’s summit (Tibet), completing the final ascent of his Project possible initiative: to climb the full 14 mountains, each 8000+ meter high, in the world in record time – just over six months, several years less than his predecessor. Ostensibly, save for some minor climate change campaigning, Nims’ feat of human endurance represents no tangible benefit to the human race or to himself, even financially. Yet, his achievement has made headlines all around the world. Not alone in these exploits, Nims is part of an elite class of North Face/ Red Bull sponsored athletes, tasked with exploration of the most extreme environments of the earth and pushing the barriers of human performance. So, why does it matter?
For most, death-defying stunts of humanity induce a deep feeling of fear, and the connection we share with these athletes causes us to fear for their life and keeps us interested. Why don’t we get the same sense of celebrity for soldiers or deep sea divers? It surely can’t be that empathy for the danger of a journey or schadenfreude that causes us to be interested in it – we actually lose interest all too quickly in these stunts when they are shown to be repeatable. When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first clenched the summit of Everest it made global headlines, yet this year 800 people will ascend the Hillary step and claim the summit, to little fanfare. I believe it is something far deeper than fear that makes us respect feats of human extravagance, the same basic human instinct that makes us esteem the moon walkers in the same class as mountaineers and Nobel researchers. When one of us makes it to the top, humanity takes a step forward. One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
“I believe it is something far deeper than fear that makes us respect feats of human extravagance, the same basic human instinct that makes us esteem the moon walkers in the same class as mountaineers and Nobel researchers.”
The point of exploration would seem to be to drive humanity, however this can’t be the case or everyone who watches the Olympics would be in perfect shape and school kids could be induced to work hard by Indiana Jones. Is it possible we leave the hard graft to the special few and stay in our own box? This would imply the opposite to my previous point. Can it be that we get scared into ignominy and mediocrity by the success of others?
Another way of looking at this would be to disassociate the time and effort put into something from the goal itself; this also explains the curiosity we have for the individual rather than the task – no one would read a book solely about Tommy Caldwell famed climb of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite (to date the hardest climb ever done), however millions of copies of his book have been sold, detailing the 10 years of planning and lifetime journey that brought him to California in 2014. It’s people’s stories that interest us because at their base, the same issues affect all of us. Kipchoge sleeps at night, Purja has a family and Caldwell likes sunsets.
What we must respect on a human level isn’t danger, nor is it achievement in its own right: it is the dedication and devotion to a singular cause that inspires millions and brings the whole population up a notch when some adventurer peaks a new feat of humanity. Looking at the last decade, Alex Honold’s free solo climbing the face of El Capitan, Kipchoge’s two-hour marathon, Purja’s 14 Peaks in six months and Tommy Caldwell’s ascent of the Dawn Wall ostensibly do nothing for humanity and no one’s life will be changed by these achievements. But, what they all share is sheer stubborn determination to achieve one goal, and to advance the perception of what is possible when humans, just like us, put their mind to a cause. Surely then the few that peak their own summits do so as standard bearers and the resources that go into their “pointless” exploits are repaid in tangible benefit tenfold. If we can stand to gain anything from exploration for the sake of exploration it is the notion that anything is possible for anyone with hard work, devotion and one hell of an ambitious goal.