British explorer and Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912. A hundred years later, on January 17, 2012, in honor of this historic adventure, the National Geographic Society exhibited some rare photos of the expedition, taken by Herbert Ponting. A former rancher out of California who was originally from England, Ponting’s flair for photojournalism led to his being signed on as expedition photographer aboard Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova. It marked the first time a professional photographer had been included on an Antarctic expedition.
Photos taken of intrepid adventurers during the Golden Age of Exploration always astound me. With little more than wool pants and shirts and leather boots with protruding nails for added traction, these steely men achieved amazing feats—without knowing of the fleece, Capilene and Gore-Tex we have today.
Scott led a party of five that January day, reaching the South Pole only to find that he had been preceded by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. On their return journey, Scott and his four comrades all perished from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold.
It seems to me that in Scott’s day, adventure meant going to an unknown place and living long enough to come back to talk about it. With no real terrestrial frontiers now left and the gear advances we have, how will we redefine adventure?
Going low-tech . . .
In 1999, in his own bid for the top, Mount Everest climber Conrad Anker discovered George Mallory’s body on the mountain. Mallory hadn’t been seen since 1924, when he and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine were spotted on Everest about 800 feet from the summit. On that day, clouds rolled in and the rest of Mallory’s expedition lost sight of him, never to find him again. The question is: Did Mallory and Irvine wander off course, or did they reach the summit and perish on the way down?
In late 2004, British documentary filmmaker Anthony Geffen approached Anker and asked if he’d be interested in re-creating Mallory’s Everest climb for a movie. Anker was.
Of course, Everest today is a different place than it was in Mallory’s day. Over the years, teams of climbers have fastened ropes and ladders in various locations, making the climb somewhat easier. To try to make his quest as authentic as possible, Anker got fitted for 1920s-era clothing to be used during some parts of the ascent, the specifics of which were gleaned from old photographs and expedition books.
Anker learned that Mallory and his team used many layers of clothing—up to seven on their chests and about four on their legs. Today, climbers typically use one layer and a down suit—basically, a sleeping bag that you can walk around in. While the layers of Mallory’s time trapped warmth, they also were restrictive. The mobility offered today with woven or stretch clothing was unknown to them. And lightweight boots would also have to wait for the future; Mallory’s team used heavy, leather hiking shoes with nails pounded into the soles for better traction on the ice.
Despite these hardships, Anker decided that Mallory could have made it to the top with his low-tech equipment. But he would have had to be tough.
. . . Or going sporty
Today, almost anyone can be taken up to Mount Everest for a fee or travel to Antarctica and survive—notions unthinkable in Mallory’s and Scott’s time.
With the world growing smaller and becoming more accessible, it seems we may have to redefine what adventure is. Perhaps it’s no longer going to unknown places and just surviving but going to familiar places and doing something active—or retro.
Do you think we need to “manufacture” our own adventures now, either by participating in an active sport or recreating historic feats? How do we now know when we’ve reached adventure’s edge?
The interesting thing is, much like Anker, Ponting himself was a throwback to an older time. As a member of the shore party in early 1911, Ponting helped set up the Terra Nova expedition’s Antarctic winter camp at Cape Evans, Ross Island. The camp included a tiny, photographic darkroom. Although the expedition came more than 20 years after the invention of photographic film, Ponting preferred high-quality images taken on glass plates.
Below is a humorous poem written by Ponting about a piece of his own outdoor gear: his sleeping bag.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
The Sleeping Bag
By Herbert George Ponting
On the outside grows the furside. On the inside grows the skinside.
So the furside is the outside and the skinside is the inside.
As the skinside is the inside (and the furside is the outside)
One ‘side’ likes the skinside inside and the furside on the outside.
Others like the skinside outside and the furside on the inside
As the skinside is the hard side and the furside is the soft side.
If you turn the skinside outside, thinking you will side with that ‘side,’
Then the soft side furside’s inside, which some argue is the wrong side.
If you turn the furside outside—as you say, it grows on that side,
Then your outside’s next the skinside, which for comfort’s not the right side.
For the skinside is the cold side and your outside’s not your warm side
And the two cold sides coming side-by-side are not the right sides one ‘side’ decides.
If you decide to side with that ‘side,’ turn the outside furside inside
Then the hard side, cold side, skinside’s, beyond all question, inside outside.