It was late September 2015. Lee Craigie and I were four days into cycling the Pyrenees from west to east. It was the third peak of the day, the low-hanging clouds were refusing to let any heat through, and it was freezing cold at this altitude. It was afternoon and I was hungry and worn out.
My bike was more-or-less dropped into the ditch beside the road. I knew it was “taking photos time”, as it always was on all the mountain passes Lee and I climbed over, but I couldn’t be bothered. All I wanted was some relief from the discomfort.
On stiff legs I stumbled to the other side of the pass, to see what was there. I wasn't expecting there to be anything but the same thick, dark cloud. But that’s the one thing all adventurers have in common: no matter how exhausted they are, they never stop wondering what’s around the next corner or down the next valley.
For a moment I thought I was hallucinating, as my ear caught the most beautiful piano notes I ever heard. I followed the lonesome tunes and, to my surprise, came across a café in an old stone building a little further down the road.
Inside everything was old, heavy and worn down. The place was empty except for a white-bearded man in deep concentration behind the piano. He hardly looked up as I collapsed onto a bench.
I don’t think it was more than ten seconds before big, salty tears started heating up my frozen cheeks.
The piano kept playing as Lee sat down beside me without a word. I wasn't even trying to hide my crying.
Now what has this wailing got to do with adventure you might ask? Well - everything! It has everything to do with adventure.
For me adventure has always been about discovering unknown territory. When I was younger, the term “new territory” meant quite literally seeing new parts of the world, and pushing my own physical limits, as well as the limits of my courage. However, as the years and the adventures have gone by, the meaning of that phrase has gradually widened and today “discovering new territory” has a much more all-encompassing meaning. As a very old and very wise Buddhist nun once wrote: Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.
And this is where I come back to the weeping on the mountain-top. My experience is that when I'm out on an adventure, it automatically opens me up. My senses sharpen, because if they didn't, I would get lost (which I do anyway), and because I'm moving in unknown landscapes and amongst unknown peoples and creatures, needing to be alert to take it all in.
When we move in our usual habitat, we easily forget our wakefulness, our lives become very controlled and our senses, and sometimes even our whole existence, become dull and placid.
What I was experiencing in front of the piano was this sense of not holding anything back; of not fearing to experience the world and myself fully - something we can only do if we have the courage to be open and let go, to face our fears, and move closer to the truth.
On that summit I was finally in a position to face the emotionally difficult year I had been through. For once I wasn’t just conceptualizing the terrible break-up with the man who was my partner and the father of my four-year-old daughter. Finally I was simply letting my body and soul wring out something much more profound and true than any skillful, and mostly self-righteous, explanation I could ever conjure down there in “normal life”. Up here on the mountain there was no need to protect myself from my innermost feelings, no need to be strong and proud. No need to be coping just fine. No need for any facade. There was just me, the exhaustion, the mountain and the piano (and Lee of course, but I knew she had seen worse than a crying Viking). Up here I could be courageous, free and true.
As I rolled down the other side of the mountain, the break-up with my beloved was still real, and it was still painful, but something was different. I had dared to look the pain squarely in the eye, and say to it: "OK, you are here. And that’s OK; I'm not so scared of you any more. Maybe we can coexist openly and honestly, maybe I can make more room for you, so that we are not so tensed up in this ordeal." After all, all monsters get smaller when you shine the light on them.
Your next question might be: and so what? You cried out all your pent-up pain, and then presumably rolled down the mountain to a good hot café au lait - what’s the big deal?
Yes, there was café au lait (or more likely beer), but there was also a moving of boundaries inside me, and even if it was just half an inch, that’s still something to be celebrated. Because what could be more important than that? What could be more important than expanding your field of vision and your insights and understanding about yourself and the world? Isn’t that the whole point of adventure?
Why not just stay at home?
But why on earth do some of us feel the need to put ourselves through all that hassle, hardship, uncertainty, exhaustion and physical pain, when its so comfy and safe at home?
There are probably as many answers as there are adventurers. Nevertheless, there is no denying that an element of escape is often part of it. Escape from boredom, and all that confining convention that can be suffocating, and leave you with a feeling that there must be more to life than this. There is also often an element of needing to prove something to yourself and others. A wish to be somebody special by pushing and testing limits in an extreme way.
Does this sound superficial? Well I’m not sure it is. After all, aren’t these things that we all, adventurers or not, are struggling with for most of our lives? Isn’t this quest to solidify our identity, this urge to feel ever more alive and free, part of the restlessness and relentless dissatisfaction of the human condition?
This is not to say that adventures aren’t also borne out of sheer curiosity and a drive to expand our horizons and have some out-of-the-ordinary experiences. For example, the very blood-and-bone brother of the now deceased Bin Laden, who also happens to be one of Saudi Arabia's richest men, would never have asked me to marry him seven years ago, if I had just stayed at home. However, as he already had plenty of other wives, I didn’t feel too sorry for him, when I courteously turned down the offer.
Another wonder that could only happen beyond my comfort zone was the exhilarating joy (mixed with panic) that rushed trough my whole being as I jumped into the middle of the Indian Ocean and swam with a whole herd of 50-ton sperm whales. I remember looking one of the ancient creatures right in the eye, and for only an instant feeling a deep sense of connection and peace. And even if this happened almost 20 years ago, the impression was so moving that I can still recall every detail of the encounter.
It is by all means not just the fun and beautiful experiences that attract us to adventure. Overcoming, or even better transcending fear and terror, is also something that leaves lasting imprints, and builds resilience and confidence.
To my mind springs the time when I sailed into a storm in the North Atlantic, gazing up at the mast, wondering if it could really hold, then looking straight into a wall of waves, praying that they wouldn’t knock the boat upside down. Or the sheer terror of bouncing up and down on top of a reef in the Caribbean in the middle of the blackest of nights, certain that the hull was going to split at any moment, and nobody was answering my maydays.
Then there is the sense of complete surrender when standing on top of high, snowcapped mountains, feeling so overwhelmed by the wildness and beauty of it all, that a sense of oneness with the universe fills you (unfortunately that kind of enlightenment doesn’t last for long after you get off the mountain and into the bar to celebrate the summit).
To me the intriguing question is whether or not the adventures, when it comes down to it, actually bring about any resolution to our forever searching souls. I wish I could answer unequivocally: yes, the adventures make you wiser, you get to the bottom of who you really are and you become peaceful and at ease with yourself and your surroundings, because you have seen it all.
Well, that of course is a load of bullshit. I have been going at it for more than twenty years, and I haven’t got to the bottom of anything yet, and certainly not when it comes to who I am.
I will say though, that all those little micro shifts that have occurred in me, and that wouldn’t have taken place had I stayed at home in predictable safety, but which were made possible only because I had the urge to push boundaries and open myself up to all sort of challenges - those micro shifts are the true benefits I have reaped from my many adventures.
The heightened alertness and the opened heart and mind that come with the adventure - these are the first requirement for bringing about change, and hopefully sowing some small seeds of beginning wisdom.
When I finally stopped crying on top of that freezing cold French mountain, and the piano finally stopped playing, the white-bearded man and I at last found each others eyes. I said: perdón.
He said: c’est normale.
He wasn’t the least bit surprised - this didn’t seem to be the first time he had witnessed cyclists breaking down in front of his lonesome piano at 2000 metres altitude.
As Emily Chappell pointed out to me when she first read this piece: Sometimes you need to climb to the top of the mountain, to get to the bottom of things.