We live at a time when it’s easy to believe that everything that’s to be achieved in exploration and adventure has been achieved. That all mountains have been climbed, and all points on the globe have been reached. Every first has been seconded, and there are oldest, youngest, fastest, least-assisted claims on anything worth standing atop.
But watching the touring Banff Mountain Film Festival a few weeks ago, it was clear that some firsts still remain. Films showed Australia’s Cas and Jonesy and Norway’s Aleksander Gamme becoming the first to cross unsupported to the South Pole and back, while half the world away Alex Honnold became the first person to scale Yosemite’s three biggest walls – Mt Watkins, Half Dome and El Capitan – in a single day.
This year, pioneering feats have continued to come. In May, 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura became the oldest person to climb Mt Everest. It was a record that was almost beaten just two days later, until 81-year-old Min Bahadur Sherchan failed in his own summit attempt. We’ve had the first quadriplegic to lead a rock climb, Nick Wallenda high-wired across the Grand Canyon, and four blokes are currently attempting to be the first to row through the Northwest Passage.
In the ever-shrinking pool of available firsts, there are also some dubious claims. A friend told me recently about encountering a climber with a bicycle on his back on the slopes of Mt Cook in New Zealand. It was his plan, apparently, to be the first to summit the mountain with a bike, even if he had to carry it the whole way. If we’re claiming feats that absurd, I’m pretty certain I’ve been the first person to climb any number of peaks wearing orange socks.
But put aside the meritless claims, and the list of firsts continues to remind us of the sometimes epic ability of the human spirit. I’ll never be able to solo Honnold’s big walls, but I’m inspired by the fact that he can, that another barrier to human limitation has been broken.
Even my nine-year-old daughter, who watched the Banff films, now talks about Honnold – “the man with the big hands,” she calls him – telling me he was crazy, but now pestering me to take her climbing. My eight-year-old son wonders why Cas and Jonesy would get so excited about a bag of dried bacon on Christmas Day, but he also talks about the strength it must take to pull a cart across the Antarctic ice.
Achievement inspires participation and perhaps more achievement. The physical feats of Honnold, Gamme, Cas and Jonesy were brilliant, but their success in inspiring the next generation might be an ever greater accomplishment.
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