Skilled female hiker falls to her death; and, are extreme outdoor achievements an expression of the cult of the self?

Gintas writes:

Some woman (“beautiful,” “smart,” “active,” “young,” “experienced hiker, one of the best” -the world was her oyster!) dies in the Grand Canyon while trying to be the youngest person ever to hike its full length. BAD LUCK! EPIC TRAGEDY!!! FAIL.

Beautiful, smart, active and young as a newlywed at 24 years old, friends of Ioana Hociota say she was an experienced hiker, one of the best, but died last month because of one possible misstep.

“It’s tempting for people to think that a pretty, beautiful young woman of 24 might have been out there, you know, out of her element and out of her head,” her husband Andrew Holycross told ABC, “and she absolutely was not.” …

“She accomplished more in 24 years than a lot of people do in a lifetime and she lived fully,” Mr Holycross said.

LA replies:

I don’t get this story. How could it be so rare for a person to go from end to end of the Canyon that only 16 people have done it and she would have been the youngest? And apparently she was hiking, not climbing. How did she suddenly expose herself to a 300 foot fall? The story is unclear.

Gintas replies:

Since only 16 people have done it, it must be a dangerous thing to do, or require extraordinary qualities, or it’s just a stunt that no one really cared to do (many things in the Guinness Book of Records are all three).

She must have been close enough to the cliff edge -maybe on the edge -that a rock hit her, she misstepped, which led to a slide down a pebble-strewn slope, which just kept going down and over the edge.

I was hiking at Mt. Rainier one July, and the trail crossed a snow covered slope. I only noticed on the way back that if I slipped on the snow-covered one-man-wide trail across the snow, I would slide and go a very long way down, and it would probably be a rocky slide, too. I was standing there scared, waiting for a couple of men to finish crossing, and when they reached me I noticed one was blind, being led by the other. Somehow I made it back, going very slowly.

LA replies:

The thing about the blind man says it all. In our liberal culture, in which the self and the autonomy of the self are the highest principles, nothing outside the self, including minimal prudence and common sense, may prevail. It’s not enough for blind people to function very well in life, which they do. They must, to demonstrate the dominance of their self over the entire universe, go hiking and climbing in fatally dangerous areas.

Mike writes:

What I find most unnerving about the article is the young woman’s photos. In every one, she is front and center with the nature surrounding her serving as a background. Then there’s another image that she apparently snapped of herself with nothing significant in the background. The “grand canyon wedding,” the attempt to break the record, and the photos all add up to one horrible conclusion: this wasn’t about her love of the canyons, it was about her narcissistic need to be the “Grand Canyon girl.” This young woman was pushed to her death by our narcissistic exhibitionist culture, where young people relentlessly but passive-aggressively compete for status by pretending to be the star of their own reality TV show. This story would be sad even if she died doing something that she loved, but it’s a tragedy that she died trying to one-up her peers in a status game.

Kristor writes:

I worked as a whitewater guide in the Grand Canyon for eight years. It is a very easy place to get killed. The amazing thing is that more people are not killed every year. There are a million places in the Canyon where a single misstep will finish you—thousands of miles of trails, that people hike every year without incident, on the edge of cliffs hundreds or even in some cases thousands of feet high. It’s a fantastic place; beautiful, deadly. Odd how often those two things go together.

Still, if this young lady really did do the amount of hiking in the Canyon that the article says she did, then I would not have hesitated to say that it was pretty safe for her to try this hike. Even experts get killed in the wilderness. It’s not a safe place. That doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the people who go there. Traversing the length of the Canyon is not, from what I understand, particularly dangerous or difficult qua athletic feat. It is just extremely uncomfortable and tiresome. But, given the nature of the outdoors, the young lady would have encountered several hundred opportunities to die, every day.

Heck, I narrowly escaped death about 100 times today, and all I did was drive around on Bay Area highways.

As to trying to be the youngest to do this trip, the outdoors life is full of this sort of thing: first ascents of mountains, first descents of rivers, and so forth. When all the mountains have been climbed and all the rivers run, then young bucks and does will start trying for things like, first ascent in winter, first ascent of the north face in winter, first ascent of the north face, in winter, without oxygen … you get the idea. People like to push the envelope. It’s one of the virtues of our species; and, therefore, also one of our vulnerabilities. We are like salmon who try to cross a two lane blacktop.

I wouldn’t read too much into this. It’s not like she was doing the hike as a way to raise funds for her sex change operation or something. She was just into the Canyon. I can tell you this: I know just how she felt.

LA replies:

This is a good example of what blogging is about. It is conversation, in which a position is stated, then corrected on the basis of further statements by others. What Kristor says is reasonable. I just want to add that I did not say that this young woman was doing something she shouldn’t have done and that her conduct was an example of the cult of self. I did say that about a blind man walking over the top of a deadly slope.

March 27

Ed H. writes:

I am glad that you have connected the cult of specious outdoor “achievement” and the liberal cult of relentless egotistic self-aggrandizement. Much more can be said about this. Having lived in California, I have witnessed the ever more strained and bizarre behavior of these outdoor cultists. Jumping off Half Dome at night with a parachute, free climbing 1,000 foot rock faces with no ropes, tow surfing 90 foot waves 100 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, and so on. There is nothing wrong with it unless you notice that these same over-achievers are absolute blanks when it comes to everything else in life. They draw blanks about nearly every aspect of life besides physical activity, careerism, and money. Trust me, none of them will ever attempt climbing the North Face of Dante’s Purgatorio without a crib, or even know who Dante is, nor have the bare emotional resources to understand what Purgatory is about, let alone the spiritual world view of Medieval Christianity.

Which brings me to my point. The egomania of liberalism functions in a very, very narrow band of experience. This makes liberals highly vulnerable to intellectual deflation, which is something they greatly fear. Liberals constantly depict conservatives and religious believers as ignorant, uncultured, and bigoted. But surrounding the suburban media-fed bubble of the liberals is a world of experience they cannot grasp, or, if they do, they only adulterate it. Quote any serious work of literature or history to them and all their egotistic self assurance escapes them in a rush of deflated self importance.

LA replies:

While your point about the North Face of Purgatorio is clever, one must, to be fair, acknowledge that no one, outside the tiniest band of specialists, can get successfully through The Purgatorio without a very extensive crib.

Kristor writes:

While I agree with Ed that some of these outdoor stunts are ridiculous, I would point out that great achievement in any sphere of life requires great concentration of effort, and a painful decision to cut off all the other potential avenues of human development. How many of those who can read the Purgatorio without any crib could even stand up on a surfboard? When was the last time a brilliant basketball player quoted Karl Rahner? When was the last time a brilliant theologian won the Heisman Trophy? When was the last time that YoYo Ma did any quantum physics?

If you have no talent for cello, or theology, or math, but you do have a talent for football or surfing or climbing, why should you be scorned because you did not read Herodotus in the original Greek, but instead focused your effort where your talents lay?

It is easy to scoff at extreme outdoorsmen, and call them cultists. But isn’t YoYo Ma an extreme musician, a cultist who is absorbed in the mastery of ancient music? Aren’t these theologians who spend endless hours chewing over the teachings of the neo-Platonists or of Aquinas extreme thinkers, cultists who are absorbed in the thoughts of men long dead? And what about these people who are totally into Dante? How medieval is that? Why don’t they get a life?

You see my point.

Those who know nothing of the glorious majesty of an immense wave may scoff all they want at a man who surfs a 90 foot swell. I myself, who know the glory and power of water, and understand the beauty and elegance of skill in its navigation, will never scoff at those who take such risks, even though I would never take them myself.

Let Ed reserve his ire for the people who invest their considerable time and talent in things like hateful, intentionally ugly music, or hideous clothes, or false and wicked philosophies, or oppressive, dysfunctional buildings. A surfer is a beautiful thing; a man falling through the sky, beside himself with the joy and beauty of it, is a beautiful thing. Sports, and outdoor adventure, are one of the few places left in modern life where ordinary folks, and super-athletes, can pursue and immerse themselves in Beauty. They push the envelope of the possible, and take fathomless dares, because in doing so they may come face to face with reality, with Truth, blasting away for a few sublime moments of utter concentration and inward emptiness all the noise and vicious ugliness of modern life.

Every one of those outdoorsmen is a nature mystic, at some level. I guarantee it. I’ve known hundreds of them. I never met a single one, however uneducated or unintelligent or crass he was, who was not deeply alive to the beauty of the world, and so to that extent a good man. They are, routinely, far more sane, balanced, competent, rational, aware, and serene than the average modern. I never met a single one who was in it for the mere fame of it, or the mere money. In the first place, the outdoors is a lousy place to earn either fame or money. In the second, no amount of fame or money could suffice to compensate for the things outdoorsmen do, or the risks they take. No; almost all of these guys are totally anonymous, and they earn nothing from what they do in the outdoors but a moment or two of purity. I call it good.

Paul Henri writes:

I disagree with Kristor about athletes and outdoorsmen, although I agree with the spirit of his comment. I was once an excellent athlete and outdoorsman. I know all about the “Glory Days.” Formal athletics are generally well-controlled as compared with outdoor activities, which are far more dangerous because they cannot be controlled.

Hiking in dangerous venues, the subject at hand, is simply stupid. Go hike around town and stop at a nice spot, be it a New Orleans watering hole or a gorgeous Colorado venue. I learned this over a period ending in my thirties. That is when I ended it. When you enter the elements, as opposed to athletics, you are beyond rules.

LA replies:

Did you have a particular experience in your thirties, of a danger encountered in hiking, that made you feel this way?

March 28

Julie writes:

Hello Mr. Auster,

I’m a stranger to your blog; I followed this link from Vanderleun’s place, and find that I might have some small pertinent information to add to the discussion, if I may. Let me start by noting that the commenters here all make excellent points, and in general I would find it hard to disagree with Ed and Mike.

However, as it happens I know a man who was friends with the hiker, and was at her Grand Canyon wedding last summer. The man I know is of the sort Kristor describes: an avid Canyon hiker who goes there several times a year, simply because he loves the place. Just discussing it makes his face light up, and the impression I’ve always had is that the friends he hikes with - the woman included - generally feel/ felt the same way. Some people really do just have a passionate love for nature in some form or other, which transcends politics, and I suspect which helps them to transcend themselves. I don’t think she was in it for the attention, and as to the photos they strike me as exactly the sort a loving husband would take of his bride; his interest would of course be more about her than the background.

Thanks for considering my comment,

Patrick H. writes:

Kristor’s eloquent defence of the outdoors life is moving and powerful. And yet I do not believe he answered your point that people like the hiker “must, to demonstrate the dominance of their self over the entire universe, go hiking and climbing in fatally dangerous areas.”

Do you remember the incident, talked about on VFR, of the 14-year-old girl who wanted to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world, and who had to be rescued at great expense when her attempt foundered in high seas? The media generally lauded the attempt as a “triumph of the human spirit,” which means, I guess, that it would have been an even greater triumph if she had been 13 or eight, or even a toddler. But it wasn’t a triumph of the human spirit at all, and would not have been even if the foolish girl had succeeded. It would have been a triumph of the human will.

The sail-fail girl and her ilk have nothing to do with the outdoors life at all. The outdoorsman of the type Kristor described is deeply aware of the sublime in nature (the real sublime, not the “sublime” of today’s advertising, which uses the word to describe the taste of a really good chocolate cake). The fools and the publicity-seekers have no sense of the sublime at all, in nature or anywhere else. Nature as the terrible overpowering awe-inspiring creation of the Lord who makes the mountains skip like lambs, is closed to them. Nature as the beauty that overcame Wordsworth, or that pulled at the heart of C.S. Lewis, is closed to them. But nature (small n) as a depthless field of possibilities, a neutral space available to be climbed up, sailed upon, rowed across, run over, swum through, or biked along, that nature is wide-open to them. So wide-open, it is flat.

These stunts are all about the triumph of the human will or ego or self over the sublime. These stunts are nothing but the attempt to reduce the sublime to the mundane, to render Nature so tractable we can send our children, our women, our old people, our handicapped, into her (no, its) farthest reaches as casually as if we were walking around the block . When we pull this kind of stunt, we elevate our own egos by reducing nature to our playground. In this sense, these stunts can be understood as a campaign to secularize nature. And you were perfectly right to criticize the whole empty self-serving enterprise.

Samson writes:

This discussion is VFR at its finest—well, there have been equally insightful moments, but it’s nice to talk about something other than religion and politics. I agree completely with Mike, Patrick H, and others.

Kristor wrote:

It is easy to scoff at extreme outdoorsmen, and call them cultists. But isn’t YoYo Ma an extreme musician, a cultist who is absorbed in the mastery of ancient music?

No, I don’t believe the analogy holds. A musician like YoYo Ma is motivated by a love for music, and a love for his craft. Theologians read long-dead men because they are thrilled by the subject matter, or at least think it important, but they don’t compete about it. “Look, at me, I’m going to be the first 62-year-old to read Deuteronomy in the Hebrew whilst balancing a pineapple on my head!” That doesn’t happen; none of them do what they do out of a narcissistic “look at me!” as these would-be record-breakers do. Even people who don’t publicize their stunts are still doing it for the personal feeling of being a “special snowflake” after having done some strange thing that no one else has done. Psychologically, it’s not unlike a teenager who gets weird piercings in order to be “different.”

As Patrick H says:

The sail-fail girl and her ilk have nothing to do with the outdoors life at all.

Indeed not. If they did—if they were simply extreme outdoor lovers—they would be content with hiking through the Canyon, or going sea-faring. They wouldn’t have this obsessive need to tell everyone else about it; to be the youngest / oldest / blindest / shortest / fattest / blackest / most Jewish ever to accomplish it.

Relevant to the discussion is blogger Half Sigma’s ongoing criticism of marathon running. People who compete in marathons are generally crying, “Look at me!”

Roger G. writes:

“People who compete in marathons are generally crying, ‘Look at me!’ “

That certainly wasn’t true of Buddy Edelen. He suffered a whole life away for his sport, and failed magnificently. Leonard Schecter tells the story magnificently in The Jocks, which is mostly a sports expose, but deals positively with unsung heroes like Edelen.

LA replies:

Assuming that Buddy Edelen was of an earlier generation, his experience would not be relevant to the hyper-liberal, self-worshipping culture of today which is the subject of the discussion.

Roger replies:

His years were 1937-1997. Fair enough.

March 29

Laura Wood writes:

This discussion reminds me of the outdoorsman Guy Waterman, who climbed all 48 peaks of the 4,000-footers in the New Hampshire White Mountains (some known for their particularly harsh winter summit conditions) from all points of the compass in winter. He was a well-known hiker and sportsman in the area. But it was in many ways a neurotic compulson. In February 2000, he hiked to the top of Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch and lay down. He died in a few hours from the low temperature. He was 67 years old and in good health. He said life was meaningless.That morning, his wife said goodbye, knowing full well what he planned to do. His friends had the horror of taking down his body in treacherous conditions. For many people, his suicide cast a pall over one of the most beautiful summits in America. How could he not have known that it would?

Clark Coleman writes:

Let me offer a somewhat neutral perspective. Most of the comments depend on knowing what someone else’s motivations are. I consider that to be too speculative, and in particular, I don’t care for anyone engaging in negative speculations about my motives for anything I do, say, or write, so I try to follow the golden rule by abstaining from negative speculations about others’ motivations.

One possibility that no one has mentioned is that men in particular have the spirit of exploration and conquest, and there are few outlets for that spirit now that the world has been almost completely explored and settled. Wasn’t it George Mallory who responded, when asked why he climbed Everest, “Because it is there.” At the time, this was considered a quintessential statement of the masculine spirit. No one called him a narcissist, nor was Edmund Hillary so called. I believe that many of the famous explorers that we laud in our history books were motivated primarily by this masculine spirit, and only secondarily were they motivated by finding gold or whatever their sponsors demanded.

For millennia, young men reached an age of independence and went out on a journey, however short by today’s transportation standards. Many cultures considered this a sort of spiritual quest, and upon their return, they brought news and ideas from foreign lands (even if it was really just the next land over and not too far away by our standards!) This served a purpose for the community as well as for the individual. Then, the young man was ready to settle down.

Today, a young man graduates from high school and is expected to go immediately to college or a job. Upon graduation from college, he is expected to go immediately to a job. If he announces that he is taking time off after either graduation to wander the Rockies or hike across Eastern Europe or whatever, he is viewed as being at least 50% bum/hobo and not as respectable as his peers who head straight into that first office job in corporate America.

Today’s young man who decides to take time off to hike the entire Canyonlands park is fulfilling his spiritual destiny in a sense. I will not say that the same holds for 14 year old girls who want to be the first to sail solo around the globe, or every other example cited in this discussion. But the condemnation of all who explore difficult terrain just for its own sake is misplaced.

LA replies:

I did not see anyone condemning “all who explore difficult terrain just for its own sake.” What most have been criticizing is the pursuit of odd outdoor records for their own sake.

Paul D. writes:

What a fascinating discussion. Score one for authoritarian comment policies.

Aristocrats have been getting up to these kind pointlessly risky antics since time immemorial: from the vestigial paganism of hunting boars on horseback with spears, to the noblesse oblige of tournament combat. Later, increasingly idled by the creep of democracy, they became early adopters of the most costly and dangerous motorcars and airplanes. Edward VIII and George VI were both avid pilots in pointed contrast to their day jobs as postage stamp models.

By the late 19th century, the bourgeoisie increasingly found the means to join in the decadence. George “Because it’s there!” Mallory was a commoner of clerical stock, highly educated and a college associate of Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and the post-impressionist painter Duncan Grant. Theodore Roosevelt was as close to an aristocrat as America could produce, while Lindbergh and Earhart were textbook burghers. However, Will Rogers and Wally Post, who died together aviating in the wilds of Alaska, were lowborn: Rogers a reservation Cherokee from Oklahoma, and Post the son of Texas farmers. As the 20th century progressed, record-setting took on the intensely nationalistic overtones that mark that entire century, and saw certain feats of circumnavigation as proxies for war when a real one was not (yet) in progress, much as the 1936 Olympiad has come to be remembered. As the Cold War ensued, these ad hoc proxy contests of favorite sons were nationalized and regimented into the competing space programs of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Now the modern leading lights of high-budget, organized thrill-seeking are Randian figures: nouveau riche billionaires and creatives like Branson and the late Fossett. But there’s certainly a more populist passion for lesser feats that now extends downward even beyond the bush-league hang-gliders of the middle classes, to the lower classes, who catalog the bone-fracture totals of Evel Knievel and endlessly retailing their own Jackass-inspired stunts on YouTube.

It seems that each manifestation has its own wellsprings in contemporary theologies, heresies, and (of late) novels. In rough chronological order, and off the top of my head I would implicate: paganism, Rousseau, Bacon, Nietzsche, Kipling, Shaw, London, Hemingway, Rand, and Johnny Knoxville. This strikes me as a fascistic provenance.

All that said, I view parts of today’s phenomenon—the Randians—as an elite cargo cult devoted to a vanished aristocracy. Among the middle and lower classes, I see simply the devil’s work of a growing supply of idle hands, tying pride, sloth, and envy into a tidy, DayGlo, spandex bundle.

Keep up the good work.

Kristor writes:

Thanks to Clark Coleman for saving me some time, in saying much of what I would have said. Most of the comments in this thread that criticize extreme outdoorsmen presume an understanding of their motives that is I think unwarranted. I think it is safe to say only that the motives of any extreme outdoorsman are mixed, some being vicious, some virtuous and noble. But this is a truism, no? It is true of all of us, in everything we do.

Samson argues that the analogy between, say, Edmund Hillary and YoYo Ma does not hold, because Ma pursues his extreme musicianship for love of the sublimity of its object. But my whole point in drawing that analogy was that outdoorsmen pursue their objectives for the same sort of love. Speaking as both a musician and an outdoorsman, I can say on the basis of experience that this is so. Music can indeed be sublime; so can the woods. Do we dump on Ma because he has sought stardom and celebrity as a musician, rather than scraping away in the solitude of his basement and working days in the insurance business? No, of course not. Nor do we say that Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton are somehow gnostic ego-strokers because they engaged in public ministries that brought them world-wide celebrity, rather than pursuing their contemplation in cloistered anonymity.

Now, I am sure there are some show-boaters out there in the outdoors community, who are mostly looking for celebrity and money, and who are engaged in thinking up publicity stunts, like Evel Knievel. They are professional daredevils, first and foremost, and the outdoors is their métier. I am not talking about them. I am talking about men and women who are outdoorsmen first and foremost, and for whom such fame and fortune as may derive from their exploits are secondary to the main thing, of perfecting their radical confrontation with wilderness, and death, and beauty. They are motivated to their extreme exploits, at least in part, by the human urge to explore new territory and try new things. In saying this, I speak again from personal experience, of sitting around the campfire countless times with fellow outdoorsmen, talking with laughter, rapture or respect about adventures of the outdoor life that, as lived, were often horribly painful, or that it would be magnificent to undertake. Their basic attitude is magnanimous.

Clark Coleman writes:

You wrote: “What most have been criticizing is the pursuit of odd outdoor records for their own sake.”

Yes, but my point is that pursuit of records for the sake of records is just a manifestation of the masculine spirit. Men are competitive. When told that something is impossible, many men become intrigued by that challenge. Likewise when they hear that something has never been done before. It is not because of the feminist-claimed suppression of women that men have been almost all of the inventors, explorers, conquerors, etc.

There is no unexplored frontier today. Should all men just accept that it has all been done before, everything has been discovered and explored, etc.? If someone publishes a newspaper article tomorrow that says that no one has ever hiked from Baffin Bay to the Bering Strait in the dead of winter, then next winter someone will try it. I won’t. It does not greatly interest me. But I will understand that some man, somewhere, will consider that to be a challenge and attempt it. I will not claim he is a narcissist, or that his motivations are “pagan” or of “fascistic provenance.” We cannot tell all men that the only challenge left is to climb a corporate ladder and establish their boldness and dominance in that arena. Not all men are suited to that life.

Samson writes:

Clark makes a very good argument about the drive to explore (and I likewise appreciate his point about not speculating on others’ motivations, without agreeing—I actually think it’s often possible to do so. Humans are fairly consistent, not to say rational!). But I am still skeptical. I still think there is a difference between, say, being the first to climb Mount Everest, and being the first to climb Mount Everest at the vernal equinox wearing two silken shirts and carrying a chicken in one’s pocket, which is the sort of silly thing we hear about today. If you want to do this sort of thing, do it. Don’t qualify it with ridiculous clauses so that it becomes a “unique,” and therefore publicity-earning, stunt. This is still my answer to Kristor, who argues that “extreme outdoorsmen” do what they do out of love for nature. Some do. Not the ones who do what they do in order to impress their peers (or themselves) with their “extremenes.”

Kristor said:

If he announces that he is taking time off after either graduation to wander the Rockies or hike across Eastern Europe or whatever, he is viewed as being at least 50 percent bum/hobo and not as respectable as his peers who head straight into that first office job in corporate America.

It’s a side point, but this flagrantly untrue, at least in my world (I don’t know anything about the corporate world): medical schools actually prefer candidates who have done stuff like this after college.

Kristor writes:

Great thread. Samson’s latest cracked me up: “being the first to climb Mount Everest at the vernal equinox wearing two silken shirts and carrying a chicken in one’s pocket …” LOL! I have to agree. There’s a difference between trying to be the first to swim the Atlantic and being the first to swim the Atlantic with your hands tied behind your back while whistling Dixie.

Seriously, I think that the disagreement on the whole thread can be cleared up if we all stipulate to this difference, and agree that silly publicity stunts, whatever the setting, are just that: silly. To the extent that anyone spends a great deal of time on them, they are being foolish. But simply deciding it would be cool to hike the length of the Grand Canyon does not fall into that category. How to tell whether a particular exploit falls into the first category or the second? Let me suggest that if you read about an exploit in the press, you should ignore it as a probably publicity stunt. If something, anything hits the press, that is not a matter of public affairs, we can be pretty sure that it is not worth paying attention to. There are exceptions, of course; mostly, they are stories of death and disaster, as with this young lady who hiked the Canyon. These are worth reading, in order to learn what mistakes were made.

Samson attributes a quote to me that should really have been attributed to Clark.

Hannon writes:

I wanted to expand on the excellent comments of Kristor and Clark Coleman. One aspect I do not believe has been brought up in this discussion is that men and women who seek outdoor challenges can be moving away from something as much as they are moving toward something else. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu or snorkeling in the Red Sea are activities that take one away from the stressful or dreary vagaries of home and work. This sort of “exotic” activity, as opposed to getting away to the lake country eight hours drive from home, sends a message to one’s cohorts who do not have a similar same drive. It gives one a different standing among peers and family and, in a healthy manifestation, helps nurture one’s own spirit in relation to others and to God. Some people really need to get away for a spell to achieve that.

As your commenters have noted, it is not so wise to assume the motivations of others. Similarly, I have my doubts that many outdoor explorers have given their own motivations a great deal of thought. They are more likely the type to just GO because contemplating motivation is the antithesis of action. Speaking from personal experience, it is often the case that the specific means or goal involved (kayaking, peak hopping, etc.) is really only a “prop” or necessary excuse to reach a more important goal of finding out more about the world and oneself. The specific pretext or activity matters less than fulfilling a need that some of us are strongly called to answer to. Some will find that need in 50 years of laboratory work, others will find it studying dragonflies on Madagascar. On a certain level there is no real distinction between such activities and “sport.”

Paul D. writes:

I think we’re comparing two rudimentary archetypes that may perform “superlative outdoorsmanship”:

The Shavian. The effortless and unerring morality of this superman is wasted giving up his place in line to old ladies at the Safeway. He applies it instead to glorious and grueling feats al fresco to establish his rightful dominion over nature. Along the way, he’s probably smelling the roses, considering the birds of the air, and coming to know the power of God lest he err. He does not compete except with himself, worthy nemeses being in short supply. Being first, fastest, and feted aren’t his ends, they’re by-products of “how he rolls.” He’s historically been a “he,” and an aristocrat, and therefore quite rare today, though Kristor provides anecdotal evidence of pure motives among certain modern extremists. Samson doesn’t see this type among outdoorsmen, but considers this type the rule rather than the exception among extreme theologians and ultra-cellists. Real world examples: The Dread Pirate Roberts, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.


The Randian. Nature bows to the iron will and bottomless Swiss bank account of this self-made man. He is a novelty junky. Being first to some remote place, or to have steamy sex on a pile of bearer bonds soaked in Montrachet, provides the individual with a perceptual monopoly on a sliver of reality, a leg up over the competition among his peers in the avant garde of rational self-interest. Prideful and vain, the Randian adventurer does not abjure publicity, nor shy from naked competitiveness. Real world example: James Cameron.

Now, Clark, my “fascistic provenance” comment was offhand, but it’s worth noting that these archetypes, though opposed, are both motivated by principles that are “of the right,” or at the very least are “not of the left.” I think this strikes against Lawrence’s earlier contention that “In our liberal culture, in which the self and the autonomy of the self are the highest principles, nothing outside the self, including minimal prudence and common sense, may prevail.” Certainly liberalism and feminism are to blame that women are involved at all in such pursuits, but not for the entire phenomenon.

Though I don’t think that Miss Hociota, as a woman, had any business hiking in deadly peril, I believe she was probably somewhere on the Shavian end of the continuum when it came to her accomplishments. As Kristor has pointed out, she wasn’t exactly scaling the North Face, or even “climbing” at all, she was distance hiking. This requires no flashy techne, no basecamps, no chase boats. Just boots. Her “singular feat” was likely touted on a few parochial websites and newsletters before it attracted attention as a (perfectly typical) sentence in a tragically short obituary.

None of this is to say that you won’t find 20 strains of Homo sapiens marxii up to (sometimes suicidal) mischief in the woods, just that they aren’t likely to accomplish the superlative pretending your friends with bears, or chained to a redwood, or living in a yurt.

LA replies:

While I do not claim fully to understand Paul D.’s amazingly fluent exegesis, I just want to point out that there is no necessary contradiction between my description of the phenomenon under discussion as liberal, and his description of it as fascistic. I refer back to Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose’s account of the four stages of Nihilism: Liberalism, Materialism, Vitalism, and the Nihilism of Destruction. Liberalism is the first and mildest stage of a process that in a later stage becomes Vitalism. Vitalism in turn has a milder, Shavian phase, and a harder, fascistic phase.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 23, 2012 12:31 PM | Send

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