Exploration has become so routine that it’s been almost forgotten in today’s age. A major expedition may make headlines in a climber’s world, but it’ll make the back page of a website or newspaper, usually hidden somewhere in the Sports section. In the Golden Age of Himalayan mountaineering, the world held with bated breath, the news that a major 8,000-meter peak had been conquered by their country. It was a source of pride, inspiration, and immense joy because it was an example of what the human body was truly capable of. We weren’t just living in this world, we were exploring it.
This past January, when climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen were completing a passion project on the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, it caught the attention of the media, a rarity in a niche sport, who covered it so extensively, that the final pitch was streamed live through major news sites. With the attention came the inevitable barrage of criticism: “Slackers”, “Attention Wh**es”, “Get a job”, “He’s a father?!” and as much excitement as there was through the adventure community, for many others, there wasn’t any payoff and no knowledge or scientific gain, so thus, it was insignificant.
We’re told nowadays that we’ve climbed every last peak, seen the last area on every continent, and we seem to know and understand our world pretty well. Why keep sending men to space when we have robots? Why not use that same method to see our ocean? Exploration is pretty much dead isn’t it?
We need to look at exploration not as new, but as different.
In October, 2014, an ambitious expedition sent a team of elite climbers to the edge of the Eastern Himalayas in Myanmar to map two peaks, Hkakabo Razi and Gamlang Razi, determining which of the two 5,000-meter peaks were the highest in Southeast Asia. While this mission could have easily been mapped via a satellite and GPS, the objective of the expedition was to bring back an “old school” style of exploration, where discoveries could only be made by seeing them first hand. While neither summit was touched, the overall style of the exploration, from entering a part of the world few Westerners had seen to the scientific tasks of the mission, it was an example of old-fashioned thinking in a new-age world.
Exploration today isn’t about finding what’s new or what’s undiscovered. While we still wonder and formulate mysteries, we have the ability to enter new realms which were previously politically sealed and we’ve developed the technology, techniques, and training to go to places that were previously unthinkable. Applying modern conveniences, explorers have retraced expeditions led by Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, recreated the original Kon-Tiki expedition, and used human power to travel long distances, if only to find out that humans are capable of such a feat.
The question remains – are we past an age of wonder? Is exploration a dream only for those who can afford it? Adventure and exploration can take many forms, including getting into one’s backyard and just finding out what’s there. Even if it’s a place somebody else has seen before, search it with fresh eyes and an open mind. Whether it’s the backcountry of the Everglades or a rarely seen slot canyon, exploration should be about enriching ourselves, and not necessarily only about discovery. We’re at a point now where we nostalgically look at the great aviators of the 1920’s, the polar explorers, or the men who went to the moon, and we’re hungry to find out how they did it, and not as much the why. We’re retooling equipment, such as the design for space capsules of the 1960’s, and rediscovering the spirit that encouraged exploration by looking up.
What effect does exploration have in everyday life? When we see a feat such as the Dawn Wall, the expeditions of British adventurer Alastair Humphreys, or Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Miami, it encourages activity, imagination, and fitness. It forces us to think differently about the world, not to see it as parts that are too scary or intimidating to cross by human-power, but to understand that we’re meant to be bold, take risks, and understand the landscapes that we live in. It’s disheartening to see many feel held back because they don’t feel “fit enough”, “rich enough”, or live in fear of a world that they believe is actively trying to kill them.
As we enter the summer outdoor season and the last of the snow melts away, stay excited and inspired about how we are exploring. Find adventure in the every day, even if it’s a hike after work, a climb to the highest point in your town, or even a run on a new trail. See the world through fresh eyes, and you’ll understand what exploration truly is.