Despite appearances, and some disputed evidence to the contrary, all great explorers, climbers, and endurance athletes are people just like you and me. Well, not quite just like you and me. They are indeed human, but their development took a very different path.
Great adventurers have usually reached the requisite 10,000 hours required to become an expert in their specialty early in life. Then then got innovative. Once they became an expert, the things that were said to be impossible, they could react with open mindedness: “Well let’s give it a try and see.” (Think of Tommy Caldwell and the Dawn Wall project.)
I have been reading biographies of mountaineers and climbers for 20 years. I have been following climbing news closely for 10 years. Over that time I have made some observations about how great climbers became great. It applies more broadly because, fundamentally, it’s no different than how a great baseball player or musician rises to the Major Leagues or Carnegie Hall: They started at a relatively young age, never gave up, and at some point started obsessing over their craft.
The Day’s Greats Visit
Every so often, mortals like you and me get to see these exceptional humans. My meeting with super hiker Andrew Skurka has had a great impact on me. Skurka has combined long trails to form enormous loops, like his 7,000-plus mile tour through Alaska a pied. He’s fit, organized and has a geeky quality, and an awe for the wilderness experience we crave. Almost a hundred years ago, someone better known toured the US: George Leigh Mallory, the legendary Englishman who was part of three expeditions that explored and attempted Mount Everest.
Skurka and Mallory both rose to the tops of their sports by starting early. Skurka circumnavigated his home state of Minnesota when he was still in high school. He did so with style too: In the dark and cold of winter. Mallory started young as well, climbing in the British Hill Country and later the Alps, earning appreciation from his older fellow climbers for his extraordinary rock climbing abilities and stamina. When people later learned about these men, they weren’t teenagers and they had been hiking and climbing more often and longer than nearly anyone else at any age. Their visits might be likened to going to see the Pope.
More recently, Ueli Steck toured the US for a series of presentations and even stopped at the headquarters of National Geographic here in Washington, DC in early December. Steck, it seems, has been climbing his whole life. It’s hard to see his ordinary-man qualities here in the states, yet Lisa Hummel posted a picture on Instagram of Steck enjoying a rich parfait after breakfast the day of his presentation. The image showed something of the disciplined athlete rather displays: indulgence. We suddenly saw through a window to his humanity.
Reinhold Messner is coming to New York City for the American Alpine Club Annual Benefit Dinner on January 31. I haven’t seen or heard about a frail moment with him. His ego is giant, which we, from far away, tend to excuse. Up front it can be displacing; Ed Viesturs met him and said that he’d read everything Messner had written. Messner replied that it was impossible and he was right. Not everything Messner had written was available in English.
Messner started like the rest of them, climbing his local crag and aspiring for more.
While all of these men started working on their specialty early in life, there was another element in their makeup: They believed in themselves, and some of them, if not all of them, had a sense of destiny. Their effort and skill grew into the vision what they dreamed would be possible.
I’m positive that the same could be said about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the climbers that have become a household name after they free climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer
The formula for achieving great things is less about age; you don’t have to start young, even though being young when you start your quest helps considerably. The formula requires expertise; you have to master hiking, navigating, travel, rowing, rope management, technique or whatever is required of your specialty. And the details can’t be underestimated; walking the Long Trail in Vermont is one thing, but traversing the a routeless path ten times as long in winter is something more advanced than putting one foot in front of the other. Getting 10,000 hours in at your favorite activity is necessary, as the author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out. It applies to the adventurous among us too.
The other key characteristic is the need to advance and take moderate risks. Andrew Skurka, who hiked around nearly the whole of Alaska and the Yukon calls himself risk adverse. When I heard him say that at National Geographic people in the audience scoffed. However, it was true: If you tracked his progress since he was a teenager, his hikes got progressively longer and he added a new learned skill each time. For instance, he went from following trails and roads to going mostly trailess, and graduating from snowshoes to skis. He grew by taking reasonable and moderate risks at each step. On the other hand, too many risks or too much risk might have gotten him hurt or killed.
Based on what I have seen and been reading for years, my advice for someone that wants to make a grand adventure is this: If it’s worth the time and sacrifice to you, then set aside the time to hone the necessary skills, don’t rush, and believe that you will do it. And along the way, expect people to suspect you’re crazy or wasting your time.