On a rest day in Ullapool, when hiking the Scottish National Trail, I found myself talking with a man clearly familiar with outdoor life in the Highlands. He had been in the same hostel bunk room as me the night before but had gotten up very early, I presumed because he was off on some adventure. Turned out the combination of being a light sleeper, some heavy snoring, and a mass of midges making their way through an open window had driven him from bed. He was up making coffee in the hostel kitchen, preparing to continue a mountain bike tour of the area.
In conversation it emerged that both he and his wife had long worked as guides in various adventure sports—hiking, canoeing, mountain biking—but now, having settled to raise a family, he had taken a job with a company that does corporate leadership training. While they use many traditional techniques— psychological testing, a range of exercises that can be conducted in a conference space—they try to frame their practice around the concept of adventure, taking their clients into the wild. As I described to him the many exploits I’ve had trekking on most of the continents, we fell into a discussion of adventure, particularly as it relates to risk and planning. That conversation has stayed in the back of my mind since. If I think over my last decade trekking, the moments I felt most adventurous (some detailed below) were those where risk—real risk to body—played a significant role. But clearly the dyad—risk/control—works on multiple levels. It is dialectical, but also situational and perspectival. One person’s risk is another’s control.
A folk etymology of adventure could be something as simple as “to go out, then arrive,” but according to a number dictionaries, it has almost always been associated with chance or risk: “1200, aventure, auenture “that which happens by chance, fortune, luck,” from Old French aventure (11c.) “chance, accident, occurrence, event, happening”.” Buried in that list is “event,” the one word that anchors the others in a specific moment and place. Adventures, for all their chancey, accidental, ephemeral qualities, do take place as event— in a place/time—which materializes the experience. So provisionally, one characteristic of adventures is material, they take place, seizing it.
The etymology of adventure includes chance and uncertainty, but also danger: “Meaning developed through “risk; danger” (a trial of one’s chances), c. 1300, and “perilous undertaking” (late 14c.) to “novel or exciting incident, remarkable occurrence in one’s life” (1560s).” What is interesting in these formulae is that a specific body is being put in danger—“one’s chances” and “one’s life.” “One” is a nebulous pronoun, but it designates yet again a material substance— an actual body now not just at risk but also in danger. In a sense adventure is a way to assert and articulate the presence of a body by endangering it. The body—the one—is known to be itself, a body, wholly body, by being in danger. In other words, an adventure is a way to guarantee Being and perhaps to incarnate it.
It’s a strange world we currently occupy that so fervently celebrates adventure, even though, for them to be meaningful, many must at minimum produce mishap and some, disaster. But to try to think adventure, to make it a question of philosophy and not psychology, demands patient uncovering, feeling through the constant wavering between control and risk and a host of other oppositions.
The purest notion of risk I can imagine demands a body—one capable of fear and of being hurt— but we also often speak of “intellectual risk,” where the adventure does not necessarily bring physical pain. Alfred North Whitehead wrote a book with a title that seems to celebrate non-embodied risk—The Adventure of Ideas. In the preface, he opens with a dual notion of adventure: “One meaning the effect of certain ideas in promoting the slow drift of mankind toward civilization.” This makes problematic my earlier sense that an adventure requires a body as, in this sense it’s not clear it even needs a mind. These ideas seem to float above any individualization, manifesting in a cloud of history. The adventures that are ideas are not so much danger as they are chance, marking moments when the virtual possibilities of a human history—the formation of a form of civilization—are framed and at least partly directed by ideas. Civilization in this formulation participates in the adventure, perhaps is the adventure, left open to the chance that some ideas will be taken up and others ignored by history’s actors.
He goes on “The other meaning is the author’s adventure in framing a speculative scheme of ideas which shall be explanatory of the historical adventure.” This version brings us back to the adventurous individual, in this case Whitehead’s own adventures with his own ideas in relation to a received philosophical tradition. His second meaning indicates the usage where people are taking what might be considered intellectual risks— a frame that seems to perpetuate the bifurcation of mind and body and confound any sense of what adventure might be. But perhaps Whitehead who probably inadvertently re-introduced such a bifurcation might also point to a way to think adventure philosophically, on its own terms rather than through an impoverished received tradition.
Whitehead is a thinker dedicated to refusing simplistic binarisms and his work can be seen as a toolbox for such efforts. An exceptionally handy tool is his notion of “prehension.” One formulation is in Science and the Modern World where he notes: “The word ‘perceive’ is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective cognitive omitted. I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive.” Prehension then is a form of experience that does not begin with or require cognitive processing—via a mind—in order to be an experience. It is fully embodied and perhaps is a basis for thinking adventure as a process that requires a body in a risky dangerous world. Experiencing adventure does not depend on a disembodied mind or historically cloudy ideas, but instead is always a series of decisions (apprehensive and prehensive) unfolding through encounters with a dimly understood but non-bifurcated nature. Whitehead offers various formulae for the “bifurcation of nature.” In The Concept of Nature, “Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness.” Though more nuanced than this, one can read this as a rejection of the Cartesian mind/body distinction.
In Process and Reality, he evokes the prehensive experience of just such a non-bifurcated nature: “in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.” Given the precision of most of Whitehead’s concepts, I find it refreshing to read this celebration of vagueness, particularly as that vagueness is of risk, of danger, a celebration of that which is beyond control: a celebration of adventure as pure experience.
So how does adventure figure in an unfolding of being— what contours can it take, and how or why do we seek it out? I want to argue that while adventure can invoke a sense of community—Whitehead’s book, The Adventure of Ideas was pitched to a community of scholars who lined up to either support or critique it, but regardless, jostled intellectually in relation to each other—but instead adventure as event. It takes place in a specific place and time and is a form of individualization while, at the same time, multiplication. The pleasures and anxieties of Whitehead’s vague hum of the August woodland are felt by an individual body with affective responses to those specific circumstances. Adventure is both a seeking and seizure of being in the field of danger.
A way to flesh out such an assertion is to draw from walking experiences. As my conversation with the leadership adventure person took place in the Scottish Highlands, one place to turn is Nan Shepherd’s classic book on the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. Most of that text is devoted to her personal relationship to the massif and her intense scrutiny of its many forms in relation to her own senses. But she does bring in anecdotes about other people’s experiences on the mountain, including some who died when the weather changed abruptly. She has a curious response to those events and their relationship to control and risk: “They committed, I suppose, an error of judgment, but I cannot judge them. For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.” This comment is in the context of two adventurers who put themselves as risk and died, but they also put a number of mountain rescuers lives at risk. Shepherd says she cannot judge, but the judgement is implied— the adventurers did not take proper precautions and their adventure spun out of control, putting others (Shepherd’s friends and acquaintances) at risk as well.
Shepherd seems to be placing self-knowledge above personal responsibility, though for her that knowledge is not psychological (know thyself) but rather is knowing the mountain and the complicated world it contains. Her goal is to try to know the mountain (something she regularly acknowledges as impossible) through some form of pure experience—embodied prehension if you will. Perhaps a key to her risky onto-epistemology is that knowing is emergent— not a body placed in a space, but a body always already in situ. Adventure is co-produced by intense interaction.
Risk and Control: Three Adventures
In 2015 I attempted the Tongariro Crossing from the north:
“All advice is not to attempt [the crossing] in bad weather, and my morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning, so off I set. My plan was to get up to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km from the campground and a little over six from the car park. I figured to get there mid morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. If it stayed bad, I’d sleep in hut and wait for morning. The hike went well, long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. As I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop as I expected, and the wind picked up. I could smell the sulfur from the hot springs nearby. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come. The trail has been rerouted a bit since I last hiked this track (I’ve already done this stretch twice before, but in summer weather), so I was not sure how close the hut was. The rain intensified and the wind soon got to gale force. It at times actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then it appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was the hut’s redesignation as a temporary shelter, not an overnight site any longer (because of a recent eruption– after all, this is a volcano hike). I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Soon the door opened and a French couple came in, also shivering in the cold. They just wanted to see the first blue lake which is a couple kilometers further. Eventually the man did go up, but his smarter partner stayed behind in shelter. Then some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in this weather and relieved that we had decided to return down the way we had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. In little over an hour, I was off the mountain and in the carpark.”
Many weeks later on that same trek:
“The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge which was magical. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by high snow-capped mountains with not anything that looked like a pass in evidence. The trail markers then made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly something to name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off, though there was much more altitude to gain. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I’m not sure what conditions reduce that risk in the spring, but soon I was crossing snowfields on the way up, and once on the top, it was all snow for about a third of the very long descent. Fortunately some people had been through in the last day or so, and I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but I would sink to about mid calf on each step. With cold feet I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half, and (after 11 hours of hard hiking) I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes, and gratefully crawled into my tent and sleeping bag, ready for a hard night’s sleep.”
And recently (after my Ullapool hostel conversation) this happened on the Scottish National Trail in the days after the remnants of a hurricane hit the Highlands:
“This leg was supposed to end in Inchnadamph, with tomorrow’s heading back up the same path for a bit. As there were no accommodations or facilities there, I opted to hike a bit into tomorrow’s leg— a mistake. I still felt strong and was comfortable with a couple more miles, but the alarms should have gone off when the path climbed quickly toward a bealach. Unlike most other places I’ve trekked, in Scotland once you are at any elevation there is almost no cover— no trees or steep stones to tent behind. The landscape is scoured by the winds with plenty of growth ankle high, but nothing that will break the weather. Foolishly I decided to press on, hoping that in the evening the weather might calm down, or that a sheltered wild camping spot would miraculously appear, or the “small shelter” mentioned in the guide would be open and sufficient. All those hopes were dashed. The shelter was indeed open, but was a mere sod-covered roof over a 5’ narrow bench with some rocks chinked in the sides to form a sort-of wall. Disappointed in myself (and feeling the intense cold), it was there I decided I had to camp. Trekking is supposed to be an adventure, which in some of its etymological history includes embracing chance and taking risk. My adventure today was tempting chance and was an unnecessary risk. Still we must make the best of bad decisions, so after shucking off dripping clothes and finding dry ones in my pack, I made a bed more or less on the narrow bench (I fell off once, hitting a rock and spraining my wrist). Crawling into my sleeping bag, wearing most of my warm clothes, I felt the warmth slowly return. The day’s exertions erased any appetite, so I choked down a few dry crackers, curled up in a knot (unable to stretch all the way out) and tried to sleep, all the while feeling my gear getting wetter and worrying that I might roll off onto a rock again. Still, I could not help but smile at all the day had thrown at me.”
In each, the dialectic of risk/control, responsiblity/recklessness pervades, as does the embodied nature of adventure—its eventfulness. How to reconcile such actions with a sense of responsibility in the manner Shepherd suggests? In each I was irresponsible as I could have needed some rescue, particularly because of possible hypothermia. In the past 4 years, I’ve begun carrying a Garmin InReach device which uses satellites to signal for rescue, but on Waiau Pass I was quite possibly not followed by anyone for several days and had no way of signaling distress. On the SNT, hypothermia would have done its work long before a rescue crew would have arrived. In other words, I trusted my own skills and ability, without counting on assistance from others, but I also trusted the mountain, entering into a relationship with it in all its particularities.
So how does adventure figure in this essay? Clearly it remains a going out and arriving, one accompanied by chance, risk and occasional danger. Following Shepherd’s lead, I must ask what knowledge is formed, and what form does it take? In a leadership training framework, one must assume that the knowledge and understanding— the skills—are somehow transferable, that learning on a mountain will help one act well in an organization. But Shepherd’s onto-epistemology is always situational. To know the mountain is to be part of it—in it—and the knowing only exists while being part of the event of adventure. Responsibility is perhaps part of what Whitehead would call the cognitive apprehension of nature, but adventure more than likely takes place on the ground, in the immersive risky place of prehending (in a vague woodland) and living out something like a pure experience, outside clear or obvious forms of control or planning.
T. Hugh Crawford