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.