They are a force more vile than Al Qaeda. In their pursuit of glory, purpose, and might, they cost our nation untold blood and treasure, exploiting not only the unknowing goodwill of the American taxpayer, but the sense of duty exhibited by volunteer and enlisted man alike. They take, extract, and devour, all without a single shard of restitution, save their broken shells following an unsuccessful rescue. They are, of course, mountain climbers, and more than mere adventurers of the pioneer spirit, they are — to a man, woman, and even child, if necessary — the focus of evil in the modern world. Their stories clog the airwaves with a near-mythical pant, as if the very journey itself from pampered suburbia to the unforgiving landscapes of our peaks and hilltops is worthy of report. Still, if they simply trekked from place to place and garnered nary a mention, all would be forgiven. Inevitably, though, and with alarming frequency, the scoundrels are getting lost: up high, in deep, at night, and always when the wild winds of winter whip up the very frenzy once reserved for genuine exploration. And so we look for them — with breaking news, breathless coverage, and a sense of urgency so powerful that it sweeps us along in its hardened, sorrowful clutches. Many times these stories are greeted with good news, and half-frozen bodies are returned to civilization to await book deals and round-the-clock interviews, but just as often there are tragedies; sad, bitter tales of defiant derring-do met by the cruel lash of nature.
In the days of undiscovered countries and uncharted lands, exploration was a necessary — and equally perilous — undertaking. Though motivated by the promise of riches and nationalistic pride, the bravery could still be admired, as maps to nowhere and a thumb to the breeze were all these men had to guide them along. Trade routes lay ahead, sure, but also the true nobility of something — anything — not yet done. To be the first human being on a particular spot, for example, is indescribably intoxicating, and if it helped god and country to boot, so much the better. No such journeys are required at this late date, at least above the ocean’s waves, so the only factor pushing these weathered souls to the brink of existence is a belief that one must always strive to reclaim a lost masculinity. At bottom, it’s an artificial, and wholly unnecessary, blast from flaccidity to fully-flexed manhood; a bear cry of the primitive in a world having long since expelled the need to define one’s lot on the field of honor. Despicable as it is, then, these armchair warriors waste dollars and sense on what amounts to a child-like need to matter again, as if flirting with death is the only way to appreciate a soft-boiled life. Iron Johns of yesteryear once tricked many into believing such hairy-chested idiocy, but now it’s back again, proving that a man not in touch with his “inner voice” is arguably the most dangerous being on the planet. Once he senses a need for release, civilization is in peril.
The only real solution, of course, is to refuse all aid and comfort to these pampered trailblazers, asking them to go it alone and make the adventure more than a half-hearted vacation. Once you embark, the world turns its head, and whether snow piles high or temperatures drop, you must find your way back home again without assistance. If it’s the resurrection of your member that you seek, pleading for help — by beacon or flare — is a white flag of surrender, presumably the last possible thing you’d want to signal to those left behind. History is littered with the corpses of bold visionaries who failed to meet their goals, and no one ever heard from them again. Nor were rescue ships or parties dispatched to bring them back. If they, in far more pressing times, moved on without a flinch, surely we can lose a few nitwits and their overpriced gear without resorting to sentimental despair. We certainly have more vital causes on which to spend our increasingly overburdened revenue stream, and the very last thing that should concern us is the retrieval of hyper-masculine dullards without the good sense to stay away from the very area forecast to experience an impending whiteout. Or next to last, if one factors in the laughably irrelevant Amber Alert system, which is little more than a subsidized taxi service for young ones stolen away by aggrieved spouses in the midst of custody battles. Another tale for another time, perhaps.
In a larger sense, the mountain climber channeling the spirit, but nowhere near the besieged reality, of a Robert Falcon Scott or Edmund Hillary is part of a more fundamental idiocy in our midst: the Burberry Outdoorsman. Such a man — always a man — is high-priced, fashionable, and very well-to-do, but in his off-hours, he puts caution to the wind and bestows a small fortune on the illusion that he too can return to his roots. He’s going home again, but always with the well-manicured estate as a convenient (and essential) fallback. From climbing gear, to shoes, tents, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment — all top dollar and with impeccable brands — he arrogantly purchases the very lifestyle that cursed humanity against its will for most of its evolution on the earth. It’s but a temporary flirtation, though, and so shallow as to be laughable. Under the moonlight, with only a thin sheen of trendy fabric separating man from beast, one can live without lights and noise and traffic and steel, even while recognizing that what one can seemingly go without for a long weekend are the very things enabling this faux penetration of the natural world in the first place. Up over that hill might sit your mighty vehicle, or through that clearing may twinkle the lights of the city, but here, now, you have become what you never knew you had, without judgment or constraint.
In the end, though, it’s bullshit. The outdoors, despite receiving limited — and fading — protection from allegedly “disinterested” bodies, no longer exists in any real form, though millions of acres stand without trace of humanity’s stench. But in order to remain that way, these precious lands must never be visited by man, which steals away the proving grounds for untold thousands of men-in-training. What rituals await them without creatures to hunt, scope, and kill? How else to contrast the city’s crush than with the quietude of the forest? Surely our imaginations and boundless energy can reinvent manhood’s trail? Still, it must be done without nature. Wall it off, protect it at all costs, and return it to a pristine, untapped state, but never again allow the stoic killer that is man to walk its grounds. It is not, after all, a playpen. Our futures lie in the city, after all; in towers, air conditioned offices, hotels, and jazz-filled restaurants. We are an indoor people, and all calls for remaining “in touch” with nature are at best Pollyanna strivings befitting a childish race. We build, expand, and destroy; the woods, the mountains, and the streams belong elsewhere, out of our minds and hearts and banished from our dreams. We’ve fought, bled, and died over dozens of centuries to reach the point where we can be comfortable. Sanitation, running water, insulation, clean sheets: these are positive turns in humanity’s quest, not sad signs of our alienation. Now, at this time, we can flush indoor plumbing; again and again, if called upon. We didn’t fight a thousand wars to be squatting over a pit in the darkness.