Adventure Travel; Reckless Abandon or Calculated Risk?

Taking part in a great social media chat regarding adventure travel today gave rise to a number of issues:

Adventure travel; camping under Pavey Ark in the Langdales, English Lakes on Mallory On Travel 15-05-09-001-1

Wild camping has some inherent risk

To some this type of travel seems to be synonymous with high risk and adrenalin sports. The truth is it is a phrase coined to group a number of activities into one particular label.

“An adventure is possible in your own backyard if you have the right attitude”

Whilst there can be no argument that spending a couple of evenings in ‘hanging’ bivouacs’ on the side of El Cap or a Dolomites big wall or kayaking down a grade six white water is serious adventure, it is however also relative. Children have adventures almost every day, without leaving their own neighbourhoods and often without any risk whatsoever.

Adventure Rafting in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada on Mallory On Travel

Guided rafting on some big water

Any new experience is an adventure, the excitement of a journey, arriving at a new destination, becoming immersed in an alien culture. There are of course factors that can add to the sense’ of adventure; remoteness of the location, ability to communicate, supply line for resources and of course the element of risk involved.

A Risky Business

The perception that adventure requires risk has the result that many people are now attempting things way beyond their limits. There are also some companies willing to take advantage of this and make a profit from this new found quest for adventure.

An adventurous spirit: An Attitude of Adventure 

Pushing the envelope is acceptable, provided those participating have some ‘miles’ in their tank, gaining the necessary skills that only come with experience. Taking unnecessary risks is reckless!

Many of the so called adrenaline sports, high altitude mountaineering, back country ski touring, climbing or white water kayaking are actually relatively safe. The proviso here is that the participants are experienced, sufficiently skilled, well conditioned and equipped for the pursuit they undertake.

Adventure and via-ferrata near Millau in the Aveyron, France on Mallory On Travel

Via-ferrata has implied risk only

Even truly high risk activities like *BASE jumping, cave diving or solo climbing are practiced by participants with many years of experience, working through the various progressions of their sport to reach this the epitome of their expression. Most solo climbers incidentally usually climb well below their ‘actual’ climbing grade, and are often very familiar with the route; the result of a mistake is nearly always fatal.

Most accidents/injuries occur due to an error in judgement, whether is attempting something beyond the capabilities of the individual/group or due to poor equipment, not being suitable for the environment or conditions.

There is a great deal of commercialism now involved in adventure travel. There are almost unlimited companies offering the opportunity to fulfil lifelong ambitions. There is obviously a degree of responsibility on their behalf to ensure that their clients are suitably experienced, skilled and equipped to complete the venture.

Qualification courses for guides include being able to assess the client, not merely asking them what they have done, but being able to read those that are displaying excessive bravado or modesty. Sometimes it may entail doing another route first to assess this.

The Risk Business

The sphere of high altitude mountaineering was once the province of a highly skilled and experienced group of ‘celebrity’ climbers. It is now possible for almost anybody with sufficient funds to be ‘led’ to the top of Everest, the highest peak in the World. People as young as thirteen and as old as seventy six have successfully reached the highest point on Earth and a sixteen year old has reached the summit of highest peaks on all seven continents.

These accomplishments should not be belittled, they are amazing feats even in the modern era, and probably successful because the guiding agencies involved are reputable. Skilled guides do not risk the well being of their clients, it is not success at any cost, but careful planning, a wealth of experience and a little luck which brings success. Any climber that reaches the summit but does not return to Base Camp and ultimately home safely has not been successful.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp: Everest Base Camp Trek; A Survival Guide

There have been a number of tragedies in recent years in the Greater Ranges, not all have been the fault of an ill prepared individual. Some have involved experienced guides, breaking the rules of sensible alpinism to get their ‘charges’ to a particular summit.

Adventure and climbing in the French Aveyron Gorge on Mallory On Travel

Climbing is generally a safe activity

Is this responsible? Apart from the risk to the individual there is the additional risk to the other clients and members of the climbing fraternity that maybe required to launch a rescue attempt because somebody attempted to overreach. Mountain rescue teams are often called out in horrendous conditions and to extremely remote areas because the foolhardy attempted something beyond their abilities.

There is also the ever growing cost of such rescues to be considered. Travel insurance will cover medical fees or evacuation by helicopter where necessary when participating in the usual vacation activities in most destinations. Expensive specialist high risk activity insurance is normally required for certain activities and to remote areas.

The climbing fraternity has lost a number of its own as have most other high risk activities. There is of course some inherent risk in these pursuits, seracs or ice bridges over crevasses collapse; that is pure misfortune and cannot always be completely accounted for. However there still remains a degree of calculated risk taken by experienced mountaineers.

A risk to self-esteem?

Additionally there is the question of integrity with some of these particular forms of adventure travel; the ambition of fulfilling a lifelong dream can occasionally cloud this issue as well as judgement. Many will have heard of the groups of ‘climbers’ passing dying British climber David Sharp because it interfered with these ambitions; approximately 40 people simply ignored him!

This was not a case of exhausted climbers forced to make a decision about leaving a fellow human being to die for the sake of their own survival. It was a decision made purely on ambition and the ethics of it has been widely debated by people far wiser than I. It is hard to imagine men of the calibre of Bonnington or Messner in the golden age of mountaineering making such a decision. It is a sad indictment of our society that raw ambition can now overwhelm the basic humanity most of us possess. Perhaps even more disturbing is that there were guides present, in their case commercialism was the overriding priority.

There is not any suggestion that limits should be placed on where anybody is entitled to travel to, or the activities they participate in. It is the individual responsibility of those participating that should ensure that they are truly capable of operating with relative ‘ease’ in the environment and are equipped correctly. Choosing a reputable and responsible activity provider whether it be for bungee jumping or Patagonian glacier crossing is equally important.

Adventure travel, choosing carefully: Snap – Don’t ‘star’ in the next adventure travel video

Just visiting Everest base camp is a difficult trek and would be an amazing experience for most, an attempt on the summit should only be reserved for those with the necessary capabilities.

Adventure travel and bungee jumping in the French Midi-Pyrenees on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography Iain_Mallory_00234

Trust in reputable operators and quality equipment

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” — Edward Whymper

Any views on this subject, it is a contentious one so it should spark some good debate, do you believe we have a right to travel anywhere, do anything we wish without actually having the necessary skills? Or is this reckless abandon and putting other people unnecessarily at risk?


Comments 4

  1. Mark Abouzeid

    I am a photojournalist with years of experience in what some call adventure travel. I have followed expeditions to the North Pole, the headwall of Mt Baker and bedouin caravans through the desert. I am not, however, an adrenaline junky…in fact I am just the opposite, I adore the range of subtle emotions that I experience during a calm moment on these trips.

    I cannot agree more that proper preparation and training reduces the risk but not the enjoyment; in truth, it allows you to fully experience the journey instead of living in a constant state of fear based excitement. I have learned more about culture, humanity and gentle beauty on adventures than anything else. Maybe this is the reason that I consider myself an explorer rather than an adventurer.

    I was once an investment banker and so I clearly understand the need for extreme experience to help one shut down from a highly stressful daily life…but recommend that people use exploration of life’s adventure rather than making adventures out of life by ignoring covetting risks. I have broken over 20% of the bones in my body, have a few metal pieces holding things together and a range of scars that read like a history book…and I never take unecessary risks…don’t worry, life presents enough excitement, you don’t have to go looking for it.

    Thanks for your well written and thoughtful article…keep up the good work!

    1. Post

      Hi Mark thanks for taking the time to comment. A very considered one as well and totally agree people need to realise there is often a cost to taking risks, I have participated in quite a few expeditions of one sort or another all over the Globe myself, luckily I have avoided any serious injury but I have seen a number of quite nasty accidents, even a few deaths and participated in searches and an avalanche rescue.

      Finding a little excitement or adventure does not necessarily require huge risks and yes it will find you anyway if you have the right attitude.

  2. Sherry

    I love your initial quote – “An adventure is possible in your own backyard if you have an adventurous spirit.”

    And what a very comprehensive post about this topic. I honestly don’t know what to feel. On the one hand, I live my everyday life using calculated risk. But with travel, I like to think that I’m living life with more reckless abandon. However, I don’t actually believe I’m can ever become a reckless person, as every decision I make is still calculated, even if I like to think it is not. I do want to be more open to things and have a ‘just do it’ attitude, especially as I travel the world. Though its harder now because as we get older, we become naturally more calculated people.

    1. Post

      Thanks Sherry, glad you found the post of interest and it got you thinking a little as that is the main point in many such posts. My intention is not to suggest people do not enjoy activities that involve risk, I have spent my life doing just that. I do think that there is a responsibility to ensure they are up to the task however, taking senseless risks which you are not ready to tackle is completely selfish. Climbing is a high risk sport and a few others I have particiapated in can be considered selfish because of this and the loved ones at home that worry while we participate in them. However I have always served my ‘apprenticeship’ ensuring I have the necessary skills and experience to ensure I had a good chance of getting home. Putting others at risk that may have to come out and dig the ill advised and ill prepared from the predicament they have got themselves into is my biggest gripe, it is one thing to endanger yourself another entirely to put others at risk. We all get older however and whether we like it or not have to mellow and tone down our plans and activities, one day soon maybe!

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