Friday, February 14, 2014

The Princess And The Frog

Long ago and far away, on one of those never ending death marches that used to be the hallmark of all true mountaineering trips which you just sucked up and did regardless of overly heavy ill-fitting packs and boots, aching shoulders, sore knees, bad backs, extremes of weather, and the flatulence of your tent companions and which, if asked, you would always say was "not too bad," I remember having a conversation with a very well known (and sadly now deceased) mountaineer about the “new generation of climbers” who were coming of age on a steady diet of easily available overly itemised route descriptions, GPS tracks, guide-books that depicted routes with pictures, track notes, and pitch by pitch or even move by move itineraries, long-range weather forecasts, cell-phones, satellite phones, walky-talkies, and every other piece of gimmickry that you can imagine. My companion was lamenting the lack of skill exhibited by the new generation who couldn't read maps, plan routes, route-find on a macro or micro scale, and seemly to be successful by simply following overt route descriptions that very quickly became yak tracks up all the popular mountains/routes.

 Morning SUP to Haycock Island

At the time I wasn't old or curmudgeonly – I think I was only in my late 20's – and we didn't think of more experienced mountaineers, such as my friend, as cranky and gruff. We might have considered them somewhat eccentric, definitely strong of character, and outspoken but, after a few trips bashing around the mountains with them, we soon came to view those supposed “character flaws” as essential for their success. These old mountaineers aren't what I call “shiny happy people” and they didn't have what Will Gadd refers to as the “Barney world view.” If you screwed up, they would tell you about it. And screwing up covered a wealth of ground. You might be too slow on skis, or in the transitions between skiing and step-kicking, you might whimper for a belay on ground they considered easy, make route-finding mistakes, not break your share of trail or carry your share of the gear, fall over while roped skiing, be inefficient at step-kicking, not be up for one more climb on an already long day, or whine about the weather, the terrain, how heavy your pack is, how sore your feet, hips and back are, how tired you feel, or how scared you are about what the next day will bring. 

 Three craft on Haycock Island

Now we live in the “me-generation” where, if you didn't post about it on Crackbook it didn't happen. We are all above average, and our fairly puny exploits are followed by legions of loyal fans who, no matter how much we screw up, are standing by to pump up our self-esteem with “bad ass dude” comments and thumbs-up emoticons, all despite the fact that the trip took three times as long as it should or was a total failure, involved countless navigational screw-ups that we didn't recognise, skirted close to the edge of disaster on multiple occasions, required heavy use of all kinds of accessory tools, belays and devices that aren't really necessary but make up for a continuum of poor skill, we came DFL or was just generally average. 

I've often wondered if the hubris expressed by the new generation of skiers, climbers, paddlers, mountaineers is a product of the “self-esteem” generation, which has, by all accounts been an abject failure. Some people certainly think so. If it weren't so annoying, it would be funny hearing people talk about how impassioned they are about something they've done half a dozen times when the weather was perfect, how much they are giving back to the community by going out climbing/skiing/paddling, what an inspiration they are to others, or some other shiny, happy, feel good, Barney drivel. 

Perhaps we should all admit that none of our essentially egocentric activities does anything to make the world a better place or to inspire another individual long-term. Those people who want to climb/ski/run/paddle will find their way to whatever activity they enjoy, and those who need outside stimulation/inspiration will last only as long as the next fad. We climb/ski/paddle because we want to and, contrary to what we want to believe about ourselves, 90% of us are not above average, we turn around when we get scared, we quit too soon or too easily, we make dumb mistakes that by dint of our own incompetence we don't even recognise, we seldom reach beyond our comfort zones, we are rarely, if ever, making truly “life and death” decisions, and we never make our decisions based on rationality or real evidence. 

Sadly, despite what your Crackbook friends have told you, you're not the Princess in the fairy tale, you're the frog.

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