My brother James has written a fascinating piece on the psychology of solo caving and climbing. He’s an experienced caver, but unlike most people who venture underground, he prefers to do so alone – a philosophy that also extends to his mountaineering.
We are alike in many ways, but where we differ is in attitudes to risk and commitment. I no longer climb (it’s been years since I’ve done anything you could call ‘climbing’ with a straight face) but James continues to push his personal limits, both on and beneath the mountains.
He concludes with a line that particularly resonates with me:
I’m very slowly starting to accept that perhaps it is good for some places to just be inherently frightening, and perhaps it is okay to allow yourself to feel it without question.
So much truth here – wisdom, actually. From childhood, society teaches us that we are the masters of our environment, that the world is ours to shape as we see fit, that technology will allow us to ascend and transcend. This is particularly true now that the majority of humans in western societies are cyborgs, with elements of our memory and cognition extending deep into the web. Even on remote mountaineering or backpacking expeditions we carry these advantages with us (a subject for another essay, perhaps). The definition of adventure is changing rapidly.
But that isn’t true when you go underground. Down there, in caverns and dungeons where few have gone before, where the landscape is unknown and unpredictable, you’re just an ape with a large brain – and every rule in the book is different.
Much as I enjoy the benefits of modern life, I think there is inherent value in places that frighten and intimidate. They help to remind us that there are bigger forces out there than the momentum of our own civilisation.