How Do You Define Adventure?

Do you compare your outings to others’ and sometimes feel less than? Maybe a little perspective is needed.

adventure journal climbing mountain ridge

As I descended the corniced summit ridge, I saw a climber coming up the same path. I hacked out a small ledge in the snow on the uphill side of the path and waved for him to come up and pass. There’s not much room for two people, and a fall to either side of the ridge wouldn’t stop for 1,000 feet or more.

The Mönch, by most definitions, is a pretty casual climb in the Alps: After a train ride to about 11,300 feet, you walk a snowcat track to the base of a ridge, scramble and climb snow on an exposed ridge to the summit at 13,474 feet. It’s not exactly a walk in the park (people have died on it), but it’s no Eiger North Face, for sure. You can order a coffee before you start up the ridge and walk into an Indian restaurant 15 minutes after you take your crampons off. But the view as you climb up is amazing: jagged, snow-covered peaks as far as you can see to the south, the largest glacier in the Alps starting its weaving, 14-mile descent 5,000 feet below.

He did a slight bow as he grabbed my arm and gently squeezed, like he had been climbing all day waiting for someone to share the view with.

As the man approached, he slowed and stopped right in front of me, smiling. I gave him a thumbs up, gestured to the mountains and said, “beautiful, amazing,” hoping he might recognize one English word. He nodded, smiled bigger, and said, “Czech Republic,” and I said, “USA.” He slowly pronounced “voon-dah-bah,” looking around, and we had one German word in common, two guys in helmets and hoods on a knife-edge ridge having a moment together, a little in disbelief that something could be so beautiful. I laughed and nodded. He held his hand up, started to move his feet to continue upward, hand still in the air, and then he did a slight bow as he grabbed my arm and gently squeezed, like he had been climbing all day waiting for someone to share the view with.

I watched him walk away for a second, stepped back into the trench and continued down, unable to remove the shit-eating grin from my face for several minutes, sure that that was the best thing that had happened to me during my entire year of climbing, maybe ever.

One day when I got back, a friend asked on Facebook, “Has the word “adventure” become cliché?” And I thought about that, and yes, Yvon Chouinard says it’s overused, and plenty of people agree with him. And I thought about all the e-mails in my inbox from friends or acquaintances who have climbed The Nose in a day, soloed remote big walls in faraway countries, and gone on proper “expeditions,” where they get dropped off on glaciers for weeks at a time so they can climb or ski mountains nearby, and how I may never get on something worthy of National Geographic, or a Goal Zero sponsorship. Sometimes I wonder if I waste too much time comparing my own adventures to those of my friends or peers, in that ridiculous way someone compares their lawn to their neighbors’ lawn, or their new car to their co-worker’s car.

Then I remember that I grew up in a small town in Iowa in the 1990s, and not so long ago, my definition of “adventure” was going to a bar in a different state to get shitfaced. So that’s a little perspective.

I interviewed my dad a few years ago for a Dirtbag Diaries episode, and the best thing he said during our talk was this: “I grew up poor, and had nothing. Everything I did in my life was an adventure.”

That guy from the Czech Republic, on the summit ridge of the Mönch, had probably traveled even less than me to get there. It’s a 12-hour train ride or an 8-hour drive from Prague. He must have been in his mid- to late 50s, and lived most of his life that close to the Alps. But he was so excited to be there.

And I think maybe it’s all about gratitude. Is this an adventure, or is that an adventure? If my dad says so, I think it is.


Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
Showing 14 comments
  • Frosty Wooldridge

    Definition of Adventure:

    “If the roar of a wave crashes beyond your campsite, you might call that adventure. When coyotes howl outside your tent–that may be adventure. While you’re sweating like a horse in a climb over a 12,000 foot pass, that’s adventure. When a howling headwind presses your lips against your teeth, you’re facing a mighty adventure. If you’re pushing through a howling rainstorm, you’re soaked in adventure. But that’s not what makes an adventure. It’s your willingness to struggle through it, to present yourself at the doorstep of Nature. That creates the experience. No more greater joy can come from life than to live inside the ‘moment’ of an adventure. It may be a momentary ‘high’, a stranger that changes your life, an animal that delights you or frightens you, a struggle where you triumphed, or even failed, yet you braved the challenge. Those moments present you uncommon experiences that give your life eternal expectation. That’s adventure!” Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler, mountain climber, scuba diver, mountaineering hut to hut skier

    • Jimmy


  • Bob Howells

    Nice, Brendan. It reminds me of the snooty, purported distinction between travelers and tourists. Someone out there can always top my travels or adventures, but that’s not the point. If we’re outdoors in the beauty of the world, we’re travelers. We’re adventurers.

  • Jeff Fujita

    I often see it as a Pros vs Joes whenever I see or read of those who push the line farther and further out, here on AJ, Expedition Portal, Outside, Rock & Ice, YouTube, etc…and I’m a late for the party Joe. But while that line is often almost out of sight, the Pros, like with most pursuits, set the tone for the rest, so that others know what’s possible. I see adventure as stepping over my own personal line, knowing full well there is that other line out ahead but relishing in the sense of accomplishment – big or small – in leaving comfort behind and getting that taste of newness, firing up my brain and satisfying my soul. Adventure is the sight line for those that manage to raise their head above the herd of sheep.

  • Mike

    Great article! We rarely see the excitement of where we are and what we’re doing cause we’re too preoccupied looking outside our own adventure at something else.

  • jim

    what great story! adventures come in all shapes and sizes right? as the old joke goes, for some people an adventure is staying in a hotel that doesn’t have room service. 🙂

  • Dan Murphy

    I like your dad’s line.

  • Accidental FIRE

    Then I remember that I grew up in a small town in Iowa in the 1990s, and not so long ago, my definition of “adventure” was going to a bar in a different state to get shitfaced.

    Ha! I grew up in Baltimore city so that phrase applies to me as well except exchange “barn” with “neighborhood”.

    Great post Brendan. Kind of reminds me of Alastair Humphries “micro-adventures”. Adventure is what you make it, and it can be close to home.

  • Bruce

    Your dad quote sums it up. Everyone has their own Everest, personal FKT or summit of the day, week or month. Enjoy and be fully in the moment and that is an adventure. It may be much harder and more dangerous to get out of, or survive a life of poverty than to ascend the Rupal Face.

  • GOOG

    “Suffering is the highest grade of fun” – Steven Rinella

  • jim

    @GOOG, swap in surfing for suffering and I’m all in!

  • Dale Flynn

    If you believe that you are having an adventure, then you are. Or, if you believe you are a tourist, or a couch potato or a dirt bag, then that’s what you are. I think we should all remember and celebrate our own accomplishments and adventures, and it doesn’t matter at all if they are greater or lesser than those of other people. I have long been inspired by a well-known mountaineer who has been publicly celebrated, for decades, for one particular climb. That’s a fine thing, and he is a great guy. So, I figure if he deserves to be celebrated (as he does) for that one summit long ago, then I should celebrate my own 508 summits that are of no concern or interest to the public – understandably so.

  • Eric

    In the planning stages, you’re thinking it’s going to be an ‘adventure’ because of all the great things you’re going to experience. After you’ve done it, you’re thinking “what an adventure” because of all the things you suffered through. I don’t think anyone, in the middle of it, has stopped and said/thought: “I’m on an adventure”. It just is what it is. You’re doing something that your soul requires you to do. Call it whatever you want.

  • Ethan Maurice

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of adventure myself… I actually wrote the first draft of an article about this last week–the title of this article really caught me!

    To me, it seems adventure is wrongly losing its association with risk and the unknown. Where that line is that we feel exposure and sense of adventure will differ greatly, but for something to be adventurous I think we have to sense risk or face uncertainty. Riding a roller coaster could be absolutely thrilling, but not adventurous, as on a roller coaster you’re simply along for the ride–there is a guaranteed outcome. No swashbuckling feeling or sense of potential consequence that we’ve long associated with adventure on a roller coaster. For me, adventure has to have some sense of exposure to us that heightens our experience of the present.

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