For some people the feeling of success can only be achieved after completing a monumental and gruelling task, the ecstasy is sweeter when the aim is that much harder. How else can you explain the agony extreme travellers go through if not in terms of the self-fulfilment they must feel on completion of their dreams?
In 1875 Matthew Webb became the first man to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids. The precedent was set, and challengers would continue to repeat this feat, even though they could no longer be the first. The bar was duly raised in 1961 when Antonio Abertondo swam it twice, and again in 1981 when Jon Erikson swam it three times. Everyone that put themselves through those trials wanted to overcome their predecessors: it was the competition that made them strive for better. The channel straight-line distance is twenty-two and a half miles, an imposing distance. Yet even this pales in comparison to the one hundred and ten mile gap from Cuba to Florida that Diana Nyad swam.
There was nothing leisurely about these activities; they were battles against the elements. Diana Nyad waged this war four times before succeeding in 2013 as the first person to swim the Straits without a shark cage. The task was incredibly demanding; adding the presence of sharks and swarms of jellyfish made it borderline insane. Yet Nyad could not be dissuaded by anyone not to take this on, and despite contention to the legitimacy of her swim, the extent of her achievement was still remarkable. But why did she do it? For Nyad it was simple: you never give up and always pursue your dream. There is an intensity about people that attempt such exploits, a standard they demand from themselves, to conquer and not be conquered.
In 1953 Edmund Hilary, Tenzing Norgay and their team sought mastery of the elements. Their gaze fell on Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, which had not yet ever been successfully scaled. Hilary and Norgay were to become the first two men to reach the summit of Everest (it is possible but unproven that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine did it in 1924). A seven-week climb with dangers of frostbite, long falls, and altitude sickness, which could lead to dementia among other things, begged the question of why they would want to endure such hardships? The reason was simple. Because it was there, because it was a test of the body, and because it would show how far man had come since 1924. The beauty in the climb for these men was the isolation and solitude from the rest of the world, and they were doing things no one else could dream of. They put themselves through hell for the ultimate ecstasy of standing on top of the world.
So what has come from this legacy? Now, Everest has become a plaything, something that anyone can now conquer for the right price. Many will pay locals to take the risks for them, finding the safest paths first and carrying all their equipment. On May 25th and 26th 2013 one hundred and fifty climbers reached the summit causing delays en route. The multitudes of untrained climbers have caused deaths, a blemish on the legacy of the mountain. What the climb was truly about has been lost to commercialism.
‘I like the freedom inherent in being on my own, and I like the growth and learning processes that develop from taking chances.’ That is a quote from the best-selling book Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the woman who decided to trek across 1700 miles of Australian outback with just four camels and her dog, Diggity. Davidson only decided to make it public with a book when she realised she would need funding for her preparation. The dream was a completely individual one, not driven by competition like the others. Davidson wanted to be closer to the desert; she wanted to bare the hardships and she wanted to do something extraordinary that she could live her life by. It was a 195 days trek in searing heat until the next time she saw open water in the Indian Ocean, an unbearable task for most, an intense solitude, but the reward of discovery outweighed it all.
There is a memorial in Dawley dedicated to Matthew Webb with the inscription, “Nothing great is easy”. To achieve great things you have to push yourself to the edge. Across here lies exhilaration and discovery, and those that are part of it will no doubt question why others are not.