With the 2015 Ski to Sea race now behind me, my regular racing season now comes to a close with a handful of surprising wins, and many more near misses and silly blunders. It's a bit strange to write that, because for most who paddle in climates North of the equator, the best and biggest races of the season are just around the corner.
But for me, my attention now pivots to the irregular season, as I am preparing for my attempt to break the circumnavigation record of Vancouver Island. The island is roughly 700 nautical miles (1100km) in circumference, and offers it's guests a true test of their seamanship and athleticism with vast exposed coastal wilderness, numerous technical cruxes from surging narrows, pounding surf to the exposure of the open ocean itself. Roads, habitation, and communication are few and far between. Heck, there are even bears. And wolves.
The current record is held by Stephen Henry, who pulled it off in just under 13 days and represents a very high standard indeed. It's one I hope to contribute to by making my attempt entirely unassisted, and is to my knowledge a standing problem yet to be solved due to the sheer scale of the undertaking and the numerous variables that can derail even the most skilled and prepared attempts.
It's natural to approach the subject of a speed record by focusing on the central issue itself by asking the question "how fast and how far can I go?". That question gets a bit more interesting when I contemplate bigger questions concerning the sport of expedition paddling itself. Questions like "where are we going as a sport, and what does it really mean to break the record?"
The parallels between expedition paddling, and expedition climbing are numerous and readily apparent. Much like climbing in the 1980's faced an existential crisis when grappling with what it truly means to climb fantastically huge heaps of ice and rock, so does the water-sport community today when contemplating paddling around them. Central to the quandary is the inherent ability of technology, gear, and ever increasing emergency resources to round the sharp edges of off every adventure. Taken even further, there is a real risk that the big, noble challenges we face can be reduced to nothing more than engineering problems.
For climbers, the answers for the great problems of the Himalaya were answered collectively by guys like Reinhold Messner, Mugs Stump, Mark Twight and Alex Lowe who set very high standards with bold ascents of previously unthinkable lines. In the process, they helped articulate a new ethic known now as alpinism that inspired a new generation of athletes with even bolder ideas of how mountains could be climbed around the world. Anything with an ism is typically heady stuff loaded with philosophy and artfully worded rhetoric, and alpinism does not disappoint. But where alpinism veers away from precious arguments around the role of technology and actually picks up conceptual steam is in its central argument that less is more.
There is also the numbing threat of repetition in pursuit of reputation. I can't help but wonder what Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg would have thought of Ueli Steck running by? They, like us, wouldn't have seen him coming. But once he did merely repeating his feat, while an enormous challenge, would ultimately just be a form of imitation. Flattering but not exactly work worthy of the Louvre.
Ultimately any conversation around ethics and the aesthetic of the athletic pursuit will be informed and animated by the underpinnings of your motivations. The question such endeavors naturally raise shift from "how, what, when and where?" to "why?". We all have our own reasons. If it's the summit that matters most, then any means can conceivably find itself justifying the end. Want to top out on Everest? Well then it's possible that you needn't even climb, as there are now helicopters capable of landing you on the very top. Chances are you can even bring your selfie stick.
If however, adventure is what you seek, the journey becomes as valuable as the destination itself as the cliche' rightly informs us. For myself, adventure is merely the dogged pursuit of the unknown by artfully escaping the limits of the known. Yet the allure of the unknown is more than the irresistible pull of the horizon and what might be just beyond. And its even more than discovering the limits of my own physical capabilities or slipping away from the daily grind. Adventure and the pursuit of the unknown has the unique power to bring equilibrium between visceral risk and meaningful reward by making known who I am made to be as an adventurer, husband, father and man. And that to me is something worthwhile and truly meaningful.