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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Three Characteristics of Adventure

An 'adventurers' shadow at Crag Lough, Hadrians Wall
Mortlocks comments in the introduction of Adventure Ways (1984 pg 11) resonate strongly with me, the 'adventure' and enjoyment of outdoor activities used to be enough for me and I was happy to climb, hike and camp purely for my own enjoyment and the challenge of going further or somewhere different or using only foraged food or primitive equipment. When I was given an opportunity to work with young people I realised that the adventure I facilitated provided more than enjoyment and that when their experience was over they had learned something. In 2006 I was employed to run a 'youth activity centre' in Norfolk which catered mainly for visiting church youth groups. The young people visiting this centre were only there for brief periods normally for a maximum of four or five days on a one off residential trip and I didn't always see the long term benefits of their experiences. There were a couple of groups which invited me to a 'camp reunion' a few months after they had visited the centre and it was clear that what they took from their experiences more than anything were strengthened friendships but what about their experiences had been 'adventurous'?
I'm inclined to agree with the examples Mortlock (1984 pg 20-21) gives and Mitchells comments (1983) regarding the subjectivity of adventure and the effect an individual's perception can have on whether an experience is an adventure or not. In the case of the groups I worked with in 2006 there were certainly some who felt that the zip wire which went over the lake, the raft building and water runway were too much of a challenge perhaps because they wouldn't be able to hold on all the way to the other side of the lake, perhaps they wouldn't keep their balance on the water runway or maybe they were afraid to be in open water. But with the encouragement of their friends most people were able to complete the activities and feel a sense of achievement. In my opinion this sense of achievement is key to a feeling of adventure but it doesn't necessarily come with the meeting of a stated goal. Someone who experiences an adventure may feel a sense of achievement even if they did not meet their original stated aim, but someone who did not take part and who might read about the experience afterwards may not feel that it was an adventure and maybe even someone in the same team did not feel it was an adventure. Without a sense of achievement the experience might be seen as a failed attempt or just an unpleasant, difficult or traumatic experience.   
I think there is an important distinction to make here though; whether an experience is an adventure can only be determined by someone who experienced it; and for it to be an adventure the person having the experience must feel an element of challenge, and this challenge will be different depending on your level of experience. Challenge does not necessarily mean that there needs to be a risk or hazard associated with the activity or that a participant's safety is uncertain but there may be uncertainty about whether the task is within the grasp of the participant. For example a very experienced bushcrafter may attempt to master an unfamiliar method of friction firelighting, as they are already experienced there is no concern over safety or worry about using sharp tools or being in the woods but there will be uncertainty over whether they will be able to complete the task, as they practice they will discover the most effective way to proceed with that skill and that discovery will become part of the adventure.
Discovery has often been the motivation for many of the great contemporary ‘adventures’ or explorations. And the challenge of wanting to be the first to do something; whether it be to conquer an unclimbed peak or the highest peak or an unexplored area has motivated, and still motivates people to undertake adventures today. There are scientific expeditions which may not require lots of technical expertise in terms of outdoor skills (although many do, for example the expedition Steve Backshall recounts in his autobiography Looking for Adventure (2011) to the Mageni cave system), these expeditions are adventures because of the discoveries made rather than the technicality of the skills required. The idea that discovery in and of itself can be an adventure is particularly valuable and is a useful way of facilitating adventures for younger children; there will always be things to discover in a garden, or the local woods or country park. For children ‘playing’ in the woods, but not ‘play’ in the sense that Mortlock means in his model of adventure, can lead to the discovery of colourful insects, interesting leaves, trees to climb, birds nests, fairies houses, troll dens, dragons and even edible plants. This discovery is adventurous and children love it, my four year old and two year old will actively look for white dead nettle flowers when we are out and will pick and eat them, but this is no longer an adventure for them, now they are used to it now we have to find more adventurous things like fungi or pig nuts or sweet chestnuts.
To add one more optional criteria for adventure I would have to include nature, although I think it is possible to have an adventurous experience without the prime focus being nature, or even inside, perhaps at a climbing wall. For me though, on a personal level, an adventure must involve nature and the natural environment, when I climb indoors it just doesn't feel like an adventure however hard it is.

Backshall, S (2011) Looking for Adventure
Mitchell, R, G (1983) Mountain experience: The psychology and sociology of adventure. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Mortlock C (1984) Adventure Ways

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