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Returns on Risk

Returns on Risk

Sea kayaking through floating brash ice on the West coast of Greenland.

Does the idea of swimming at Cottesloe Beach fill you with dread? Do you baulk at the thought of letting your child climb a tree, or get wet and cold? Adventure travel expert Mike Wood says the real hazard lies in our creeping aversion to perceived risk – especially when it comes to kids.

How tough are you, really? And what are the limits of your physical and mental endurance? How can you be sure if you are truly at the end of your tether if you have never been there? The notion of resilience is endlessly fascinating. During
much of my life I have been tested in the outdoors, from kayaking expeditions in my teens to Himalayan climbing and Polar expeditions in my 40s. With each challenge overcome, new confidence emerges. So, when the next difficulty arrives – and it always does – you feel more capable of meeting it. I’ve watched this important process play out often among fellow travellers in remote and challenging places.

But opportunities to test and overcome our fears are diminishing in our increasingly comfortable Western lives – and also in adventure tourism, which is becoming more sanitised and controlled by the day. How can we expect people – especially children – to cope with adversity, to be resilient, if they have never been tested? How do we expect them to learn how to prevail if they have never experienced what it is like to be really cold or truly tired?

Many people reject adventure activities because they are ‘too hard’. People tell
me they couldn’t possibly come on one of my trips because they are a ‘five-star kind of traveller’. I have always found that with the greatest risks come the greatest rewards. People rarely talk about the good days on a trip, except
in general terms; the day they talk about is the big one, the hard one.

I recently took a group to a remote area in Nepal called Naar Phu. We had a brilliant trek. The weather was excellent and we achieved all the goals we had set ourselves. The area was remote and there were no other trekkers there, the views were extraordinary and varied. But the day we all talk about now, back in Perth, is
the day we crossed the Mesokanta Pass out of Tilicho Lake in the very middle of the Annapurna massif, at 5300m, in the middle of a snowstorm. We were challenged, pushed to the full extent of our endurance. We were on a slope, in snow up to our mid-thighs, it was bitterly cold, and a relentless sleet-bound wind drove hard into our cheeks. We were well equipped, had excellent jackets and boots, and we had extremely competent guides so we were safe and under control. But we could sense that it wouldn’t take much more for things to get out of control. We could sense we were at the very limit of our capabilities – it was a great trek made more memorable by that day. I don’t expect every trip to be like that, and certainly not every day. I appreciate the warm days because I have experienced cold days. I appreciate dry days because I have experienced wet days. How can you truly value the good if you haven’t experienced the bad? The growing aversion to risk has broader consequences for children. Author Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe a generation with little or no exposure to the outdoors, thanks to a perpetually plugged-in culture and restricted opportunities for outdoor play. He argued that a nature-oriented existence is hard-wired into our brains and that we are dangerously ill-suited to the hyper-stimulating environment we’ve carved out for ourselves. Some children adapt. Others develop attention problems, anxiety, and depression. He hypothesises that a number of factors play a part: stranger danger, fear of litigation, urbanisation, lack of opportunity... fear of the words “I’m bored”. All of them are valid. But there is another factor – media reporting. We have 24/7 access to information about every frightening thing going on in the world. So we don’t go out and participate in that activity or take that calculated risk – or let our children take part – because we know that something bad can happen. Even if that likelihood is negligible, even if it pales in comparison to the drive to the school gate. The perceived high risk of shark attack is a classic local WA example. How many people don’t swim in the ocean because they are worried about shark attacks? Almost everyone I know has, at the very least, modified their behaviour around ocean-based activities. Some have ceased them altogether. Is this a good thing? Is it the result of a sound assessment of actual risk? Probably not.

After the April 2014 tragedy on Everest, where 16 Sherpa guides lost their lives, a torrent of social media ensued about the morality and ethics of putting local people in danger for the nebulous goal of ‘just climbing a mountain’. Most commentators did not understand the drivers that compel a person to take on such a task. They did not comprehend how a person could pay another for an experience that puts them at risk.

Both ways of thinking are fostered during childhood, in my view, and both revolve around irrational fear. This is the fear that surfaces when a parent screams at a six-year-old to “get down from that tree, now!” or “get away from that dog!” or “get out of that puddle!”.

Imagine instead the fear and the myths about risk that are dispelled when a parent teaches a child to light a campfire, explore the bush by torchlight, to hike with a backpack, snorkel above a reef, bait a hook or climb a tree.

Adventure travel crosses all age boundaries. When I tell people what

Zodiac cruising through icebergs off the Greenland ice cap.

Type the text hereI do for a living they often assume I get to travel with lots of young people. And there are a few of those. But the Baby Boomers are an adventurous lot. Remember, Boomers are the ones who were travelling through Afghanistan in a second-hand bus they bought off a man in Clapham in the 70s – when they still had hair. And they haven’t changed. Now they have money, they want to travel in the Antarctic and the Arctic, and do walking or cycling food-and-wine tours in Europe.

So, what of the future of adventure travel? The Polar regions are taking off, there are many companies running ships down to Antarctica and up to the Arctic, and some are better than others. A limited number of ships can handle that sort of environment so if you are going to go, choose wisely. I am in awe of Antarctica. Nowhere else is there such an extent of wilderness, a place where the human species has not damaged or altered the landscape. Every other place on earth has been extensively impacted by humans, if not the Romans, then the British Empire. But not Antarctica.

Of course, not everyone is up for a challenge. I always remember a conversation I had at Everest Base Camp in 1993 with a new commercial mountaineering operator. An American, he had nearly 20 clients from around the world and had charged US$42, 000 each to take them up Mt Everest – hopefully to the top. He was lamenting the poor quality of climbers on the mountain at the time. It was the start of the rush to add Everest to the resume, ‘true’ mountaineers were now starting to avoid the circus, or maybe getting paid to climb Everest by working as
a guide. He’d left an older client at Base Camp for a week previously – a man who was obviously unhealthy, not fit enough, and who had never been on a mountain in his life. When the tour operator said, “You know, some people have no business being here”, I was flabbergasted. I replied, “Yeah, mate, and you brought most of them and charged them top dollar!” Now we weren’t just talking about a trek where people got tired because they weren’t fit enough. Now we were talking about the pinnacle of adventurous endeavour where the ultimate price you pay for unpreparedness is your life.

I deliberately take myself into places where there is a potential to be challenged, but I prepare adequately so that I can cope with the extremes that might be thrown at me. I train, get good gear, research, speak to others who have been there and make sure that those coming with me are prepared too. We are not super athletes, just people who enjoy being in nature and who enjoy being active.

In the end, I guess it does come down to personal preference.  But certainly there are a couple of things you can do to make an adventure experience a success. Firstly, don’t bite off too much too soon; serve an appropriate apprenticeship. Don’t race off and throw down tens of thousands of dollars to climb Everest on your first trip. Start at the start, with an easy one. Everest Base Camp or the Kokoda Track are within grasp of most people as long as they are reasonably fit, not overweight and have allowed lead-time to train and prepare. 

Leading trekkers in the Himalayas.

Go with a company that has a track record, that will support you from the start and during the trek. If something happens and you get ill or injured, you want to know that you are surrounded by people who will look after you and make your evacuation a priority. Get good travel insurance (we hear horror stories all the time about people who didn’t get insurance). Buy good gear because the old saying is true: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment. Finally, listen to the experts, not the friend who did it in the 70s and tells you it was easy. Take it from me – it probably wasn’t.  

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