Do Not Fall For The Hype

In the context of climbing the epic experience begins with terrain. It can't be any other way. It commands respect. One adapts to it, not vice-versa.

The terrain forces the man to become more, to do more. Not only is the terrain demanding but it is also inspiring, the environment facilitates overcoming. It's why we travel to those sites of power in the first place. They became powerful destinations for human beings by having invited the best and toughest and most capable to break themselves and the Self on crags and mountainsides. That great adventures have unfolded on this terrain, that men have given themselves utterly, have gone to the edge and then beyond it is what gives these summits and valleys their power.

Such power compels us to measure ourselves upon the terrain or at least experience our own selves on it. While  reaching a breaking point or epiphany is not a mandatory price for self-knowledge, being and moving on that terrain, on its terms, implies experience and competence. Even though this cannot be bought, we are easily seduced into believing it can be. The marketing of great adventures can trick us into thinking we might have the same experience as the protagonists of the story. Adventure as a sales pitch: travel to the place (buy tickets here), swing the same ice tools (shop for them here), get the clothes (available here), and post your photos here (our social networking site) so others will know how awesome you are.

The right to undertake these challenges, to visit this terrain implies the responsibility of competence. No matter how much you want it, desire plus gear plus costume does not add up to a transformative experience, especially when multiplied by delusion. Without competence in the use of the tools and familiarity with the terrain you simply cannot have that experience - you can't get that deep because:

  1. a) you don't know the meaning of deep or your own depth
  2. b) the task itself, the act of doing requires too much conscious thought, which bars access to the truth of the experience

I loved climbing for its barriers. Sure, it's wide open in the sense that you can go try the hardest route in the world. But there are practical and pragmatic barriers that generally prevent the incompetent and the wishful from getting into too much trouble - or from polluting the most difficult regions of human experience in the mountains. Without the requisite wisdom and skill, and a healthy dose of will and confidence (born from the the former) people who do not belong in certain situations can not get into them. To some degree this has changed but the harsh, natural rules governing climbing have not been rendered entirely impotent by technological progress and financial access. You can go try to climb the west face of Gasherbrum 4. You will fail a long way from the top.

Surfing is probably similar. Want to surf Teahupoo or Mavericks? You can go there. But you won't ride. And even if you do, and somehow survive, if you don't belong you will not have ridden into the experience available to those who do.

The bike is different. There are no barriers to the cycling experience. Generally, the tests of "purity and devotion" along the way don't impose dire consequences for a failing score. Media has covered some of the greatest cycling achievements: those long escapes, brutal cobblestones, the incredible hour, and the snowy passes experienced by the few are known by the many. Some of those many hope to emulate them. They have free access to the terrain, and the equipment, and they are swept away by the romanticized imagery of it all.

When trying to recreate one of the great legends on a bike there are several possible outcomes. The mellowest is that you have a surrogate experience, less intense, shorter, shallower, and you ride away with ego and skin intact. Perhaps you come away with an accurate understanding of how different and distant your adventure was from the ideal, and hopefully inspired to try something more difficult the next time. But what if you get more than you can handle? Maybe you hit the storied bit of terrain at the moment of greatest fatigue and susceptibility, and the combination of the clothes, the bike, the marketing and the groupthink mentality of the others around you push you to push it so you overcook a descending radius corner and explode out the apex into the trees where you are promptly killed or crippled.

Without the wisdom of experience to forecast what might be coming, or if self-knowledge is informed by ego and imagination instead of thousands of hours and thousands of miles, the second outcome can easily happen. Perhaps you don't have the self-discipline to drop back, to ride the brakes, to take it easy. Or you don't understand how the insidious force of the group might influence you to make decisions you wouldn't make on your own. To be sure this same group influence might - in another situation - be the key to helping you crash through your self-imposed limitations in a positive way. The blade has two edges, equally sharp, but one cuts far deeper and harder and this is it.

A week ago I descended Las Flores canyon above Malibu. It's a steep descent with a lot of sharp corners where presence and skill and good rubber make the difference between a happy trip or not. Las Flores demands respect from a rider but unlike the mountains, the terrain itself is not actively trying to kill you. The risk depends almost entirely on how one behaves, and unless cursed with exceptionally bad luck an accident would not be fatal. That said a couple of months ago I read of a crash in Las Flores where bad luck must have been riding in the peloton.

I have been thinking about the differences between cycling and climbing, and the similarities, and my experiences in both so I wanted to see the crash site. I had ridden up and down Las Flores a few times in the spring, and while it's memorable in both directions, I did not recall any life-threatening corners. I read the internet commentary about the accident and thought I had a grasp of events leading up to it. If there is anything I do understand it is how we relate to risk, the influence of peers on decision-making, how momentum of any kind is difficult to resist or steer, and it is something I want to learn more about so I nosed the bike down the canyon and opened it up.

It is easy to hit 35-40 miles per hour in the straights. Blowing the line in righthand corner means exiting in the oncoming lane while taking a left-hander too hot means hitting sand at the apex and then, probably, a rock wall. As I rolled through some of the tighter, more delicate feeling turns I wondered, "Is this it? Could it have happened here?" When I finally came across the roadside memorial where the crash actually occurred I was stunned because it wasn't one of the more difficult corners. It looked benign compared to some others. And that's when I knew the comments from the twice-removed keyboard warriors - even if some were incisive and accurate - missed the critical player: luck. But bad luck couldn't have been the only player.

To reach the point where bad luck could affect the outcome so severely meant having passed through several stages of involvement where - had the sport included barriers similar to those in climbing - progress might have stalled or turned. But bikes are ubiquitous, which strips away some sense of danger. As a sport, road racing is very accessible. Spectators can get close to the Pros, ride the routes they race on, buy their bikes, wear their team kit, and imagine themselves in a top rider's place - a flight of fancy fostered by many training DVDs. Such accessibility makes delusion and overconfidence an easy step.

On the other hand it is difficult to superimpose oneself onto a picture of hard, technical climbing, or a desperate situation at 25,000' on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. There is an obvious and enormous gulf separating the viewer from the doer. And while a similarly vast gulf exists between the viewer and doer in cycling, it is hidden. This invisible gap is - to all appearances - bridged by a gilded arch upon which all who desire to may ride. Or strut. Doing so is encouraged by those who would sell us the means or their expert advice. And sooner or later, in the right context, we get to believing we might actually be equal to the task.

When self-correcting mechanisms are not an integral part of the task we must govern our own behavior. We must know ourselves intimately. We must recognize and understand all of the external factors that may influence us, and hunt for those not immediately apparent. We must be vigilant, and ruthless, with a pragmatic view of ego and esteem. We must appreciate and respect the terrain and the consequences of mistakes made on it. As long as these governors are in place I urge people to visit the sites of power and express themselves there. It's a step toward comprehension. By taking it, the practical input of action will temper a soaring imagination. A few steps further on we can begin to understand why these adventures and experiences are held up as icons of human achievement.

People sell replicas of these achievements as commodities. They include all of the risks of the real thing but without the satisfaction guarantee that comes from having earned the right to be there. So don't fall for the hype. Instead do the work.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight