First Ascent

Adventure has always been defined by the unknown. From foolhardy sea captains to explorers of dubious sanity, the history of mankind has been punctuated by leap after hail-freakin’-mary leap into the unknown.

Science in its myriad expression has eliminated much of the unknown. We have hyper-accurate surveys of the planet’s surface. We can hurl satellites at objects you can’t see with the naked eye. We’ve been to the top of every 8,000-meter peak, and into the deepest ocean trenches for reasons as simple as curiosity and as vainglorious as the record books.

Mountain climbing continues to serve as the shorthand for adventure. No other piece of equipment can so quickly evoke the response “nutty” as the climbing rope. Climbing is, at its very core, a quest to defy death. No other endeavor spells it so simply or so clearly; any 3-year-old knows that gravity isn’t the goodwill ambassador to bones.

Outside Magazine has served as the preeminent chronicler for the adventurous of spirit. If it’s never been done before and enjoys the financial backing of some active-lifestyle clothing company, they’re sure to have someone there for the first-person perspective.

However, this notion that adventure is only so if no one else has done it chafes me. Unclimbed mountains enjoy GPS surveys, so that even unnamed peaks in Kazakhstan are as defined as the ski slopes of Squaw Valley. How much is truly unknown when some team undertakes that new line? Plenty, in fact.

The adventure, the unknowing, isn’t what’s external, rather what’s internal. The challenge is one’s own ability to execute the endeavor. As cyclists, we already know this. How much easier is it ride any climb the second time around? With experience as your guide, the fears are easier to banish, your limits aren’t quite so … limiting.

A friend who once held the record for the 40k TT in California told me a story of how he, as a junior, undertook one of the longest climbs in his area with two of the local Cat. 1s. They knew a thing or two about deception and suffering. Kilometer after burning kilometer the junior would ask, “How much further?” And they, in unison, would reply, “Just a little more.” They kept this up to the very top of the climb at which point the budding talent knew he’d been had.

Imagine if you showed up for an organized event and all you knew was that it would be at least 80 miles. Think about how not knowing the exact mileage, the terrain, the amount of cumulative climbing or where the feeds were would affect your mindset. I dare say that would be adventure. I know of places in North America where you could—from a single departure point—define courses pool table flat, riddled with punchy Liege-Bastogne-Liege hills, or cruise into the mountains for a succession of second and third category climbs. The not knowing could cripple some riders.

The unknown is a powerful motivator in our purchasing habits. SUVs are sold to people who plan for every contingency. Should they need to haul a boat they don’t own, drive to Istanbul without refueling, or eject the Bond villain into the night sky, their bases are covered. It is insurance itself.

Think about your favorite garden-variety long ride. You very likely love to get it in any time you can and wish you could plan more days around it. Now, think back to the very first time you did that ride. You probably didn’t know what you were in for.

The unknown can encompass anything from success to annihilation. The riders most likely to survive, most likely to thrive aren’t those who go in with confidence, but those who recognize the very real room for disaster. It’s in humility, when we know failure is looking over our shoulder that we make a success our own, that triumph becomes something more personal than luck.



  1. jim

    >>>Outside Magazine has served as the preeminent chronicler for the adventurous of spirit.

    I find Outside hard to wade through. Sure, there’s one or two very good features per month, tucked inside a mashup of Cosmo, Stuff White People Like, and high priced ads for high priced stuff that make a person wonder if they can trust the product reviews.

    1. Author

      Jim: I can’t deny that Outside isn’t as efficient a publication as it once was. There’s a good deal to wade through these days. I’m no fan of the fashion shoots and other fluff, but that doesn’t change the fact that the column and feature writing is as good as it gets. I count Tim Cahill (the “Out There” column), David Quammen (“Natural Acts”) and Mark Jenkins (“The Hard Way”) among the very best columnists I’ve ever read.

      As I mentioned, my big opposition to them is in the notion that adventure can only be found in remote locales. Adventure is located entirely between the ears.

  2. Scott G.

    If you’d like adventure without the sponsorship try,
    Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean or Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts.

  3. James

    Scott…Eastern Approaches is one the best books I’ve ever read. I have owned two copies (the first was found on an airplane and then worn out!), have read it probably 7 times and never get tired of it! Fitzroy MacLean was probably the ultimate explorer!

    Padraig…well stated, adventure is definitely between the ears!

  4. Jim

    @ Padraig: it just bugs me to think they’re building this expectation that you need $5k of kit to camping, in the same way that Bicycling treats a $1500 bike as “entry level,” and they talk about $10k carbon wonderbikes as being the racer’s choice. In reality at $1.5k bike is only entry level for a tiny slice of the bicycling public, the high end slice, and there are a lot of teams out there on CAAD 9s that you can pick up, fully loaded with D/A (on a team deal) for $2k. Shoot, I’m on an upscale team and most people on my team are on $2500-$3k (at the most) carbon bikes, or $1.5k aluminum or carbon/aluminum bikes. The gear mongering pose is exclusive, as a verb.

    To their credit, Outside does run a “best local adventures” feature once or twice a year. If they’d make that a monthly feature and give a dozen options of good stuff to do (hike, bike, paddle, refit) in any given town I’d bite my tongue about the incessant flogging of overpriced high quality gear and probably subscribe.

    1. Author

      Jim: There’s a larger machine at work with the gear recommendations. The publisher needs to convince the audience it knows the meaning of cool, and that demands being up on the latest and greatest. Without that, you lose street cred. They also need that equipment to be seen in the magazine to try to coax the manufacturers into advertising. Rates for a mag like Outside, though, are astronomical and most bike companies blanch when faced with the prospect of a full-page ad that’s worth more than the annual salary of their marketing director. As to the more specific criticism of just what’s entry level, that’s a harder nut to crack. I’ve calibrated my sense of entry level relative to what I think is the minimum quality of bike someone needs to do what I believe to be the primary expression of road cycling, which is the group ride. My personal thinking is that if you’re not planning to do group rides and be an actual “roadie” then you may not need a road bike, per se, and as a result the customer might be happier on a hybrid. I honestly don’t think a $700 road bike equipped with Sora components will give a rider what he or she needs to ride effectively in a peloton. That said, someone need not spend $5000 to get a fantastic bike.

  5. Mister T.

    Can’t agree more about the adventure being between your ears. A couple of years ago I headed up after work to a local mtn. area for an off-road ride on cyclo-cross bikes. New territory, but I had a general idea that we could loop around from our trail to a 4-wd road and end up within 1/4 mile of where we started. We started the ride late and hit what I thought was the halfway point just before dark. We had a choice — continue on into unknown territory in the dark (we had lights) or turn around for a 13-mile downhill back to my truck. We decided to keep going. It turned out to be a bit longer than we had anticipated (!) but we eventually got back to the starting point (at 11:15pm). My buddy (who’s wife accused me of trying to kill) still talks about what a great time we had on that unexpected adventure. The unknown aspect just made it that much sweeter.

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