Death & The iPad App

Will Cory Richards survive? Or will he perish on Mt. Everest as he pursues… uhh… as he seeks to discover… the, umm…

Actually, what is the point of this expedition — other than promoting National Geographic magazine’s new iPad app? Putting Cory in a dangerous situation where he might die — and doing so intentionally — is like offering a human sacrifice to the gods of publishing: If we give you Young Cory, so full of hope and promise, will you let the rest of us survive?

Our Society — and our society — can do much better than this.

From Cliffhangers: The fatal descent of the mountain-climbing memoir, by Bruce Barcott (Harper’s, August 1996):

… For all the trauma, mountaineers are astonishingly casual about death. Photographs of fellow climbers are labeled “before he was killed in the Verdon Gorge” or “before they died . . . near Kathmandu.” The longer you linger in this library of death the more natural the captions seem. If done properly (during an ascent, descent, or bivouac), erasure from the list of the quick confers glory all ’round: on the dead for proving their will to climb, on the mountain for the new respect it demands, and on the survivors for their courage to continue in the face of disaster. Unlike any other sport, mountaineering demands that its players die. …

Climbers are occasionally troubled by their unjustifiable acts. They are, after all, seeking out environments of hardship where none exist naturally in their lives. A tent-bound reading of Zola’s Germinal induces an episode of First World guilt in Peter Boardman. “Unlike the miners in France… struggling for daily survival against harsh physical conditions,” he writes, “[Tasker] and I were here seeking a survival situation…. Our adventure was a pampered luxury that we could afford to enjoy, it was pure self-indulgence.” It is only a brief moment of introspection, and yet Boardman is a veritable Socrates compared with his colleagues. When Reinhold Messner returns to Nanga Parbat a year after his disastrous trip, the mountain villagers are eager for him to solve the puzzle they’d been mulling all winter: “Why had I had to go over the mountain and not around it in order to get from one valley to the other?” Messner offers no answer. Nor does he seem particularly intrigued by the question. After a lively conversation in sign language and broken Urdu, the author peels off his socks for a toes-and-stumps display. “The peasants contemplated me with shaking heads.” His readers join them.

Despite the peril, one closes these books not with a heightened respect for the high peaks and the people who climb them but with a peculiar kind of sadness. The ever more extreme lengths to which Reinhold Messner & Company must go to challenge the mountains only drives home the realization that in the postindustrial world, at least, nature has lost much of its mystery and danger. Writers like Boardman, Tasker, Simpson, and Messner go out looking for a struggle. They find ways of replicating the trappings of a fight for survival–the insurmountable challenge, the physical agony, the mental steel, the courage to face death–without quite discovering an underlying purpose that makes it all worthwhile. They climb to discover the “new frontiers” of the human mind, to test the limits of the body’s endurance, to peer into the dark crevasse of death, but succeed only in performing a parody of discovery. In their books, the enduring theme of man against nature is reduced to a staged fight.

Read the whole thing here.

  • J Adkins

    We did a framed quote for Bill Graves’ wall when he was “expeditions editor” (“We got $5000 in everything that moves.”). It was from Shackleton: ‘Adventure is a sign of incompetence.” Shackleton believed that. You went out to discover something important, not how tough you were. Luis Marden and Tom Abercrombie risked their lives many times, not to reach a summit or to “go extreme” but to bring back artifacts of a mysterious world to real people. Mountain climbers bring back . . . what? Geographic did an Everest climb, a disaster of injury and lost appendages. Tom Abercrombie mounted a rescue expedition, bribing a (Cold War) Russian helicopter to pluck NGS Barry Bishop away from a base camp to hospital. More injured came down. Tom gave up his place on the copter and returned to Kathmandu alone. On foot. 14 days. It wasn’t an adventure to him, but a chance to talk with mountain people and learn something. It was like pulling teeth to get the story out of him, because it wasn’t the editorial focus. It was just 14 days of trudging. No medals, no coverage. Adventure? Let’s define our terms.

    • Jan – What a great quote from Shackleton. And thanks for the details on Geographic’s Everest climb. I knew Barry Bishop lost a few toes (?), but I didn’t know the team had to be evacuated from base camp by helicopter. Abercrombie to the rescue!

      Re: a definition for “adventure” – I don’t think I can improve on Shackleton. But I will say I was delighted when NGS spun off Adventure magazine. A separate publication meant far fewer of those pointless alpine stories would eat up pages in NGM. …  A few years ago, Adventure ceased publishing a hard copy, and went web-only. “Adventure is sign of incompetence.” Could Shackleton have been a magazine critic, too? 

      Thanks for stopping by….

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