Saturday, April 15, 2006

Living to fight another day.

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April 15, 2006
Outdoors
On Nature's Edge, Risk-Taker Moves Cautiously

By RICHARD BANGS

Last spring, I was with Ed Viesturs at base camp on Annapurna I in the Himalayas as he made his bid to become the first American to climb all 14 of the world's peaks taller than 8,000 meters. It was his third attempt on the mountain; he had turned around twice before when conditions did not meet his exacting standards. This time, though, Viesturs made it, and his success was heralded around the world.

What seemed to go unnoticed, at least in the United States, was that a week later the Italian mountaineer Christian Kuntner, with whom we had dined and shared wine at base camp, was crushed to death in an icefall while following in Viesturs's footsteps on the upper mountain.

Was the fatal difference luck, or something else?

Ten years ago, Viesturs was on Mount Everest with his friend Rob Hall of New Zealand. Hall was considered one of the greatest climbers of his time, conservative and judicious in his decisions. He mandated that a climber turn around for safety reasons if he did not reach Everest's summit by 2 p.m. But Hall broke his own rule in May 1996, and he met the ultimate consequence.

Viesturs had been scheduled to climb about the same time. He was starring in his own Imax film, so the incentive was great. But he did not like the look of the weather or the crowds, so he elected to stay at base camp. Viesturs reached the summit several days later.

Viesturs is the antithesis of the swaggering, risk-it-all personality that infuses so many extreme adventurers, often gravely. He is known for his equipoise and sensible approach to dangerous undertakings. Despite the pressures that come from sponsorship money, he has not been incited to push further when he deemed the hazards too great.

In 1988, on his first attempt on the 29,035-foot Everest, Viesturs turned around 300 feet from the crest. On the 26,289-foot Shishapangma, he stopped 20 feet from the top. He is nothing if not courageous, and sometimes the greatest courage is to turn around from a fight you may not win.

In my own career as a wild-river rafter, I participated in the first descents of some 35 rivers, including many classics, like the upper reaches of the Euphrates, the Yangtze, the Indus, the Bio-Bio and the Zambezi.

The rapids on these rivers were not the only threats — there were crocodiles and other predators, exotic diseases, poisonous snakes, political instabilities and extreme weather. I am still standing, though some who rafted with me are not, including my original partner, Lew Greenwald, who drowned on the Blue Nile in 1975.

Why do some adventurers make it and others do not? Certainly there are objective dangers, ones that come with the territory and cannot be controlled. But personality is a factor as well. Some adventurers are embodiments of a duality, attracted to the flame of risk but at the same time cautious and attentive to detail, a jazz artist fused with the traits of an accountant.

The intoxicating cult of boldness rewards those who take risks, and in my years as an adventure guide I have met many who were drawn into this activity for the wrong reasons or who possessed the wrong temperament for durability. Some, who are undistinguished academically, athletically and socially in an urban environment, have drifted into the adventure business and discovered that they are seen as heroes for doing things that others shun, from running high-risk rapids to climbing dodgy walls. If they survived, they became like rock stars of the outdoors. It is a heady dynamic and, like a drug, it is hard to give up There is motivation to keep doing one greater to get that fix of attention, adulation or financial reward.

Viesturs's quest was always a personal one, and he said in many lectures that he climbed "to come home." He never succumbed to outside pressures to climb something he judged too perilous.

I also pursued my run of first descents as a personal passion and had no interest in abandoning a sensible approach even in the wildest settings. I found no ignominy in portaging, or running down the side of big rapids even as colleagues went with gusto down the middle. But after Greenwald drowned on the Blue Nile, I almost quit taking risks.

Greenwald was pursuing adventure for all the right reasons, and he was careful. But his luck ran out with a freak capsizing, and with his drowning I saw the dark side of adventure.

How could anything be celebrated that snatched away lives so full of promise, charity and happiness? Suddenly the thought of rafting seemed like a kind of wickedness, a frivolous exercise that had such an insidious downside that I could not imagine why people would risk it.

In time, I came to realize that though Greenwald's death was a sacrifice, the supreme sacrifice, it was one made in search of life, not sitting in stagnant, polluted waters behind a dam or a desk. If only for a moment, he lived life to its fullest, rode along the keen edge between water and sky, and was sparked with life and light, blood racing with the passion of existence. He lost, but so do we all, eventually.

The trick, I realized, was to traverse the line of risk, but with eyes wide open, seat belts tight, and with no compunction to turn back if conditions are not optimal. If luck holds, then life might be long and rich, rewarded with the innate value of endeavors wisely pursued.

Richard Bangs is co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, one of the first modern adventure companies.

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