I recently climbed the Three Peaks (the highest peaks of England, Wales, and Scotland) with Phil Packer and Kate Silverton. The event proved far more difficult than we had anticipated and at one time we had to discuss whether to give up or continue. It was a fascinating discussion and one relevant to many people who have taken on challenging expeditions. Before I examine the fine line between foolishness and bravery I will recap the three options that we were discussing.
This attitude of gung-ho recklessness is all very well unless you die.
• Phil had achieved a hell of a lot already. There was no need to do more to prove anything. We should just go for a pleasant walk and enjoy it.
• We should attempt to climb the peak but with a prearranged turnaround time. It was foolhardy to do another night-time descent. As it would not be possible for Phil to reach the top before the turnaround time this approach was based on the belief that having a go was the important part, not reaching the summit.
• Climb the mountain and not come back down until we knocked the bastard off. To hell with everything else. We had come to climb the mountain, and that meant the summit.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard considered that “on the whole it is better to be a little over-bold than over-cautious.” Mark Twain felt that it would be “better to look back on his life and regret the things he had done rather than those he had not done.” Many great expeditions and accomplishments have succeeded because of a refusal to give in or compromise. How many of us who make our living from speaking about adventures refer with a chuckle to nail-biting situations that narrowly avoided disaster. A wing, a prayer, and what General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett called “a pigheaded refusal to look facts in the face” are regular occurrences in many of the narratives of great adventurous accomplishments.
This attitude of gung-ho recklessness is all very well unless you die. Ernest Shackleton was no coward. He turned around just 97 miles from the South Pole reckoning that his wife would prefer a “live donkey to a dead lion.” I imagine that Kathleen Scott would have preferred the same. Goran Kropp cycled all the way from his home in Sweden to Mount Everest then began climbing the peak. Tantalizingly close to the summit he made the decision to turn back and descend. That was an extraordinarily brave decision from a man of courage.
My conclusion, I suppose, is that there is no conclusion. Those of us who love this life will continue to want to pit our skills, our nerve, and our mental and physical endurance against harsh environments. We do so despite – because – of the implacable, unbeatable strength of the natural world. A storm on a high mountain can be a match for even the hardest man; a cliff or a crevasse or an expanse of ocean is unquestionably a less than 100 percent safe place to be. But an even greater risk than these is to not take them at all, to allow life to pass us by in safe, forgettable shades of grey.
Ultimately there is a fine line between recklessness and bravery. Where precisely that line lies is difficult to say and does not really matter. We know that there is a line. The challenge is to dance as close to it as you can, but without overstepping it one time too often.
This post originally appeared on Alastair Humphreys’ website, Living Adventurously.