Conquering the Universe: Achievement as a Status Symbol in the Outdoors

Written by Rachel Fitch

When famous mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he responded, “Because it’s there.” He further explained, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive; a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” The outdoors is the ultimate test and an ultimate haven that has brought about rich feelings and thoughts in Mallory and every outdoorsman. The spirt of adventure and challenge he voiced back in the 1900s persists today.

The natural world is a bountiful place for those who choose to jump into it. It provides the essentials for living and induces feelings of tranquility. Nature is powerful and all encompassing, feeding our desire for humility and perspective. It reminds us of our place in the natural order of things and keeps us rooted to our planet. The outdoors also acts as the ultimate playground—a place to recreate, learn new skills, test oneself, and overcome obstacles. All of these attributes culminate into a single space, and are truly “why we do it.”

The activities pursued in the ultimate playground are not often thought of as status symbols, but they can be. At best, they are worthwhile accomplishments that are worthy of our respect and admiration. They can even inspire others to explore the outdoors. At worst, these activities are only for bragging rights, egotistic attempts to elevate oneself over others.

Popular activities in the outdoors are extensive—hiking, biking, climbing, rafting, kayaking, skiing and snowboarding, among many others. All of these activities are an avenue to enjoy the outdoors and allow us to enjoy many aspects of the natural world, but the environment can become simply a backdrop to almost any activity. Moreover, nature can be diluted to become merely an obstacle or a challenge. All outdoor activities come with varying levels of difficulty and rankings, and many of us have taken to achieving a higher level or outdoing our fellows as ways to “conquer” nature. Hiking a fourteener is an accomplishment of one of the highest degrees. There is no such thing as an easy fourteener. The air is thin, the slope is steep, and the ascent is a grueling process that can take hours. Reaching the top of a fourteener is no easy feat and should be celebrated.

However, celebration can digress into different forms of self-expression; accomplishments can become badges or medals to impress others. These badges become measuring sticks to gauge skill. Hiking is not the only example. Every outdoor activity has a ruler by which to measure skills—Class V rapids for kayaking, double black runs for skiing, 5.15 and V15 for rock climbing and bouldering. The outdoors can turn into a place not to find peace or lose oneself, but a place to prove something. Nature becomes an obstacle to overcome. This is not necessarily bad, but many people who aim to climb the most fourteeners or ski the hardest run can move past simple enjoyment into pitting themselves against their fellow athletes, and, more to the point, against nature. By trying to show a highest skill or dominance in these specific sports, the environment is no longer a place of enjoyment, but an obstacle. A consequence of imagining the outdoors as a notch or status symbol is that only the end result matters. The actual process and journey of these activities is pushed aside in favor of achievement. Such a perspective undermines the belief that nature is here for our enjoyment. Each of these activities can simply be experienced for the benefit of realizing that the earth does not exist solely for the needs of humans. Spending time outside can allow for an appreciation and connection to the earth, which can then lead to caring about how we treat it. By spending time away from traditional society, by valuing the journey and our surroundings, the realization will come that we are a part of the earth—not in control of it. Find enjoyment outside, but keep some perspective.

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