Some kind of fundamental dissonance kicks in when hedonistic adventure gets slathered with pretend altruism. A typical fundraising pitch might go something like this (details changed to protect the guilty): “My goal is to raise money for charity X by becoming the Youngest Saskatchewanian Woman ever to climb Mount Everest.” Right off the bat this hits Level 3 on the B.S. scale, which measures an expedition by the number of words used to qualify the potential achievement. (“Youngest Saskatchewanian Woman” makes three.) So let’s rephrase that proposal: “My goal is to go on an expensive guided expedition to accomplish something that’s been done many times before, so it will be easier to raise funds if I also appear to be making the world a better place.”
Not to pick on Everest, but the world’s highest mountain does seem to bring out the B.S. in people. In 2007, the Dutch adventurer Wim “Iceman” Hoff tried to summit Everest in shorts. A foot injury forced him to turn back at 7,300 meters, but at least Hoff understood the game he was playing. “Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest was a testament to human achievement,” he said before his attempt. “My climb of Mount Everest in my shorts will be a monument to the frivolous, decadent nature of modern society.”
And this is perhaps the crux of the problem: Stacking causes on top of adventure is like dressing up porn and calling it art. When we wrap a naked woman in a feather boa, all we’re really trying to do is assuage the viewer’s guilt about liking porn. It’s much the same with adventure. There’s no pot of gold on any summit, and no scientific knowledge that will advance our understanding of the world. We go because we like going or we’re masochistic or whatever, and to dress it up as a charitable act is missing the point.
Let’s face it, most charity adventurers could probably raise more money if they just sat at home and canvassed their family and friends by telephone. Yet more and more expeditions are funded by soliciting cash “for the cause,” then donating whatever’s left after the trip has been paid for. There are even websites that help you to travel the world in the name of the charity of your choice. On one of these, which claims to organize more than 100 expeditions a year, you can sign up for, say, an “extreme” trip to the North Pole, which rates a “good chance” of attracting corporate sponsorship. On that trip, if you meet a fundraising target of $50,000, a portion of your expenses is paid, with the rest of the money going to charity. This amounts to a savings of $12,500 on what would otherwise be a $45,000 trip.
I do think there are ways to combine adventure and philanthropy, and over the years I have occasionally done it myself. But as best-selling author Greg Mortenson learned when his global reputation went into the trash, mixing charity work with personal expenses is just wrong, even if the practice is now widespread. Not one penny from—or for—any charity has ever gone into my expedition funds. If what you are doing is truly unique or wild and will get press and inspire people, then using that press and inspiration to bring attention to a cause can be a good thing. I also think doing something simple and overtly painful to raise money, like walking endless circles on a track as my cancer-survivor friends do, or climbing laps on a cliff, has integrity. But pimping a charity to support a personal adventure goal is just weak.
I’m not ashamed to admit that when I go climbing, I’m going because I love it. With today’s constant email access and multiple calendars scheduling our entire lives into “productive” time, what we need is less guilt and more pure, for-the-hell-of-it adventure. It’s worth it on its own terms. No feather boa required.