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184. Gathering together (IV)

In a sushi joint at Paddington Station, I interviewed a man who had walked to the South Pole; he did it quite alone—it was a true accomplishment; more common today than in former times, though no less formidable. He was a soft and kind man, right down to his beard; we know such men at a fundamental level, whether they test themselves in war or on mountains. As he talked about his expedition I came to realise that the entire adventure had been secondary to him, though he made a life in lectures and descriptions of his adventures. What he really wanted to talk about was his school; his primary school, a place he hated—a place where he received poor grades and faced the sneers of the other boys, as softer men often do. He had returned, as a definite point, to lecture there; to prove that he was not stupid, and to prove that he had conquered the bullies. This was what drove him to Antarctica.

Another time, I threaded my way through the stalls at the Royal Geographical Society. It was a fair for people who wanted to go on expeditions; a place to buy sleeping bags and GPS units—and, above all, a place to network. I listened to a man who had just quit the City with a bundle of cash and an ambition to paddle down the Amazon. The more I listened to his strained pitch—for everyone was there to pitch, whatever else they were after—the more unsettled I grew. His stretched jokes about his wife and three children: “My wife doesn’t approve, of course—ha, ha. People say, ‘Why are you setting off down the Amazon with three children that age?’—ha, ha.” Now, the desire for adventure is healthy and our society is dead in many ways, but there are types of men who undertake these journeys today who unsettle me. I can see the desperation in their eyes, despite the cheerful pitch for sponsors—a logo to slap on the canoe or sledge.

There are those who only risk their own life, but some of these men lead other—possibly less unbalanced—men to a lonely death in a jungle or mountain top. In the tabloids I see the photos of these lost expeditions sometimes, and I always look into the eyes of the leader; and sometimes I see that same desperation, to be liked or to make a stain from school go away. I am reminded of C.G. Jung’s statement: “One cannot individuate without being with other human beings. One cannot individuate on top of Mt. Everest.” Although these men are often with other human beings—their team, in the physical sense—they are usually not with them at all. Jung told of a client with shady dealings who dreamed he stepped off a mountain into thin air; Jung warned him that this could be a premonition, but the man continued to climb until, one day, an observer saw him step into thin air—he took another man with him.

I have met this type, but there are others. There is the NCO type, as opposed to the officer. I met a man who was a husky master for Antarctic expeditions; for him, it did not fundamentally matter where he cared for huskies; it could be Britain or Antarctica—though he liked to see the dogs in their natural environment. His focus was the dogs and the job, where he happened to be—good or bad—was incidental to the process of pack management. His attitude struck me as healthy, reserved, and modest; yet such men rarely lead, nor can they—and often they are squandered on deranged expeditions. Who, then, should lead? The French round-the-world sailor, Bernard Moitessier, came up to the finish line of the first solo round-the-world race and…sailed on round the world again. He said: “Anyone who does this race for money or fame will come to grief.”


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