Some months ago, in Mussoorie, I asked a senior experiential educator from the UK, why the simple experience of being outdoors wasn’t deemed as good an education as contrived outcomes delivered from the same. Why is it team-building and leadership; why isn’t it plain nature, just being there? He said I was overlooking the genesis of outdoor education in Europe in the shadow of the continent’s wars. That’s the imagination at work.
If I visit my understanding of the world I was born to, the legacy of war is more than boot camps teaching camping skills and mountaineering expeditions primed for conquest. The 20th century is the bloodiest century known to man. We fought two world wars and several local wars and battles. I recall novel after imported novel read during my college years and foreign movies watched, in which the hero was fashionably ex-army. There were lots of wars a protagonist could be veteran of – World War II; Vietnam, Korea, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq for more recent heroes (I understood only later the tremendous psychological impact of World War I on mountaineering). Service in the armed forces or exposure to war was also there in the non-fiction realm with the biographies of some noted civilians mentioning military service.
Post World War II, our world changed drastically as the consumerist age with its giant industrial systems, and eventually the age of information technology, took off. In the century of war, corporate culture popularised the idea of war among companies and preparedness for battle within. Corporate officials are soldiers in another uniform. Indeed, once when I went to assist at an outdoor management development (OMD) program, I was intrigued to see an Outdoor Expert – OE as they are called in the business – attired in military fatigues, even as the program never left a resort’s lawns. Very likely, had he been dressed differently, he wouldn’t have seemed adequately outdoors to the clients training to demolish rivals in the market place. The world hasn’t really been at peace in the last hundred years or more; it has always been plotting war in the head. Even the media carries this tenor. Not only are large media corporations the stuff of corporate and competition, the media – especially business media – loves to see a war in tussles for market share and company acquisitions. I understand now why it is so unglamorous to be out in nature just for the heck of it without achieving something. I understand why no runner worth his / her salt will run without looking at the watch. Achievement has become proof of existence.
As the perceptive would say, nowadays such conflict also arises from straddling two different cultures – indoors and outdoors. If you want to make sense (and sense is compulsory for money), then you have to be relevant to indoors for that culture has the world’s money. Go outdoors to be poor and spiritual; go indoors to be rich and materialist – that would seem the case. Like generals at war strategising from safe zones, money likes to stay safe while its extended fingers explore the unknown. Reports reach headquarters from the field informing of challenge and progress. Occasionally, the indoors is borne outdoors in great comfort. Most important perhaps – unless you are achieving outdoors, you outdoor ventures don’t get support from indoors. It is the old arena mentality. Over time, a certain quality of contemplation has exited the outdoors. Triumph by well funded expedition and reduction of activity to action have become dominant. It reflects the world’s ways. First, success matters. You do what it takes to be successful including success guaranteed through commercial contract. Second, if you think habitually, you will probably wander off into avenues of imagination that are counterproductive to becoming successful. Equally, it is a noisy world and adding noise in your head through thought when world outside is already a din, seems invitation for disaster. Why think when we can dull thought through action? A climbing video – its dialogues, its editing style, its attitude – is often lifeless despite the action in it. We try to compensate with stunning visuals but there is only so much CPR can do to breathe life into dead video. Besides, we are tired of seeing the same CPR over and over again. Increasingly the stuff of smart packaging, the longevity of each media fad and format is shrinking. Few people talk of it – we are gradually exhausting our appetite for media, especially synthetic media.
At the recently concluded 2014 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club, both the guest speakers – Marko Prezelj (leading alpinist from Slovenia) and Jim Perrin (climber, well known author from UK) – mentioned world addicted to media. From what I could glean and adding my thoughts as well, I believe, the problem works at several levels. First, there is the declining value of first hand assessment. As Marko pointed out, many people are experts ahead of being on their chosen mountain, thanks to Google Earth. A tool can help but a tool shouldn’t replace a whole mountain. If that is acceptable, then why venture out to be on the mountain? Don’t forget, climbing and mountaineering are tactile pursuits. Second, at the retail level, many of us – and that includes climbers – are hooked to social media, trusting its response to validate our existence. What is a great climb? The one that gets most likes on Facebook? This media circus can become questionable distraction. Joke or not, one of the greatest young alpinists of our times is said to have attempted a dangerous mountain face solo with more batteries for his media / radio equipment than food to eat. When he got stuck, the suffering became great media. On the other hand, amid the seductive blend of adventure and publicity, it has become common habit to climb something – anything – and put it on social media because an established motor response to lauding climbs gives anything vertical the licence to seem massively adventurous. The applause becomes an endorsement of adventurer although the vast majority of us are doing tame stuff and even the great climbs we do are routes already done by others. No matter how far we go the relation between us and everyone else – our social world – trails us like a conspiracy brokering means to fame in the head.
Marko appropriately wove into his presentation a clip on mountaineering from Monty Python (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U0tDU37q2M), the British comedy series. If we climbers take ourselves a little less seriously, we will notice the element of conquest and drama we strive to introduce into an account of even the smallest hump climbed. Over the years, technological innovations and improved climbing styles have actually reduced the risk on many climbing routes. Yet a video of climbing Everest via the normal route with all frills and bells attached, still labours to create a Hillary and Tenzing of everyone following in their footsteps.
Perhaps the reason for such media is because we want to make ourselves impressive and saleable. Saleability is imperative for the funding models of climbing and mountaineering. Welcome to the third point – in a strange mirror-like situation, the expedition model resembles a triangular peak. Only a few people reach the mountain summit to hog all the attention. For that, many unnamed others and plenty of resources are used. If the supporters / sponsors have to be incentivized to contribute, they must get a piece of the final glory. It is return on investment, bang for the buck. As demands for mileage multiply, climbing narratives converge to similar idiom. It is less mountain, more compulsions of business model. Worse – everybody is still mesmerized by old stories of blood and gut. What do you do if you didn’t grunt, groan and spill blood? It is a sad state of affairs – the sponsor wants mileage; even first time trekker wants mileage and hunts for mountaineering-like moment on flat land to put on Facebook. I know it myself – it is hard to write what you did on a mountain in simple language devoid of drama, when the urge within is to sound like true blue adventurer. Vanity interferes. With the funding models we have, that vanity not only got institutionalised, it also got condoned as necessary ingredient for without imagery of vintage adventure, who wants a narrative in the media and without media where is sponsor’s bang for his buck? We have condemned ourselves to the limited world of the permanently extraordinary. To me, one of the greatest moments in Marko’s presentation was when he described a very long period spent in the mountains as – it was becoming too much. At that point on the mountain, he wishes to be back home with family. Not surprisingly, in Marko’s presentation, his family and their house, appear as fulcrum periodically. My learning here is not family or house but a senior alpinist like Marko, acknowledging “ too much.’’ At heart, the outdoors is an aesthetic. It is that simple. Let me add something here on the media, an animal I am familiar with. Many reasonable headlines I gave the outdoor articles I submitted for publishing were replaced with headlines suggesting `top,’ `summit,’ `conquered,’ `peak’ and such in them. It was as though anything happening on the mountains couldn’t be seen differently. It had to be conquest. Another regular is the word `tough.’ A lot of imagination in the media about climbing revolves around this word. The reason this happens is clear – the media’s patrons are all indoors. The far opposite of indoors will hence attract. Now think – what would happen if this media got embedded in our brain? Marko offered an aesthetically extreme view but one that definitely engaged. How solo is solo climbing if next to the climber there is a cameraman dangling from a rope filming everything? For Marko, solo means `alone.’ I call that an extreme view because it could mean no media, no freelance journalist. I however concede – that is a ` pure’ view.
For the heck of climbing’s philosophy – and everybody agrees that the core philosophy of anything in climbing is a drift to the pure ethic – can we have a seminar to debate viable expedition models that preserve freedom and mountaineering in the real sense? Can there be sponsors who don’t seek return on capital? People who give because they find something intrinsically valuable in adventure? Maybe even adventurers who are happy to do what they can with just available resources and sponsors who have means other than traditionally imagined ` mileage’ for returns? How about a sponsor who says – I don’t care for summit but give me a completely environment friendly expedition? How about someone who says – I believe in mountaineering as human heritage, so here’s the money? If there is reformed ethic in the tail and the tail wags the dog, won’t expeditions be different? I therefore won’t say that the outdoor community should court the extreme of declining help from those with capital to preserve purity of ethic; I submit for consideration – have we conveyed what the outdoors means, well enough, to those having capital? And for that, do people in the outdoor community have a genuine understanding of the outdoors in the first place?
Think about it.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)