Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tragedy, Not Adventure.

Of all the texts we've read this semester, I'm having the hardest time with Forever On The Mountain, in part because of the doom looming large on the horizon, and in part because I just can't see it as an adventure. There is no way that we will agree on a succinct - or even a diffuse - definition for "adventure" before the semester is out, which is something we seem to have accepted as a group, but Tabor's text represents, to me, what an adventure is not. The front cover calls this whole shenanigan of a tragedy a "disaster," and I find that that is the essence of the narrative. What began as an adventure to Joe Wilcox and his team has been related to the audience not as an adventure narrative, but a case study in Murphy's Law. It is a story with elements of other adventure narratives we have read: passion and ambition, camaraderie and conflict, bravery and tragedy. It also raises many of the same questions we have asked ourselves throughout the class: What is leadership? How and why do we assign blame? What is success? But Tabor, as meticulously researched and factual as it might be, does not deliver an adventure to the reader - he delivers a warning wrapped in catastrophe. It is a warning to potential climbers, to bureaucrats and those in leadership roles. It is a grim take on mountaineering, crafted so intimately that the reader cannot help but be affected by the currents of Shakespearean dramatic irony charging the text, the certainty of a tragic ending.

In my own imagining of what an adventure is, the planned end result is not always the reward that was imagined, and the unplanned result is often a rewarding, or at least learning, experience. Conventional ideas of success do not an adventure make, to my mind (except when they do). That being said, there is a difference between mistakes and disappointing adventures and discordant climbing teams that lose over half of their number. Sometimes, when coming off some experience gone wrong, I answer the friendly yet perfunctory "How was it?" with a wry "Well, it was an adventure" and decide that whatever kerfuffle occurred was actually hilarious. But that isn't what happens in Tabor's text. There is no saving this experience, no turning the death of seven men into anything but the death of seven men. Maybe I need to expand my understanding of adventures and allow them to be a little darker, but I still hold that Tabor is not presenting his audience with a tragic adventure, but rather a tragedy that grew from seeds of adventure.


  1. I think your post fits perfectly with what Dunn discusses in the first chapter of his The Shameless Diary of an Explorer. In the chapter, Dunn addresses his idea of adventure and the shortcomings that he sees in many of the adventure narratives that he has recently read. He criticizes recent explorers for minimizing their narratives to simple reports of scientific results (4). In contrast to the elder explorers, who "related what quickened the life and visions of their time, and quickened ours, rousing men to ever harder ventures," newer explorers fail to relate, according to Dunn, the aspects of their adventures that make it interesting to the explorer and the reader (4). "To-day," Dunn laments, "the world dwells mostly on the sensational fact of winning pole or peak, oblivious that the long human struggle, inspired by that master motive which mitigates endurance and suffering, are to the explorer his real end, consciously or not" (7). Although Tabor does his best to recreate the final moments of the seven men that died on Mount McKinley in 1967, he can never completely capture the truth of those moments. Consequently, he strives to create a scientific recreation of the events that led up to the tragedy and to gain a scientific understanding of how the tragedy occurred. While this in no way means he eliminates "the long human struggle," for which Dunn criticizes his contemporaries, Tabor's book is certainly more of a scientific report in places than what Dunn would classify as a proper adventure story (7). I think the identity crisis we identified in Tabor's book on Tuesday contributes to our inability, perhaps, to view it as a true adventure narrative. Maybe reading the story of the 1967 disaster from the perspective of Wilcox or Howard, who actually lived through some of its events and could recount the story as Dunn wants, reporting the "facts as you saw them, emotions as you felt them at their time," and, in doing so, create a more satisfying adventure narrative (5).

  2. You bring up some interesting points about successes and failures. Dunn's "The Shameless Diary of an Explorer" also made me consider what constitutes a successful adventure. While Dunn calls his story one of failure, his first chapter clearly demonstrates that he nevertheless learned something from his adventure, and was able to pass what he learned on to fellow adventurers and their armchair equivalents. I personally would consider that a success. The same logic applies to many of the other texts we've read this semester, and perhaps most notably to "No Horizon Is So Far". While at times adventurers don't achieve the goals they originally set out for, they always come back with something, be it new found knowledge or respect for the journey. But then, as you point out, where do tragedies like "Forever on the Mountain" fit in to this theory? The only value or success I can grant them is that they serve as cautionary tales. While I don't think any of the men who died would ever have considered their deaths successes, if their story inspires caution in the hearts of adventurers, we can at least say they didn't completely die in vain.