Monday, May 12, 2008

Do what you love, the money will follow?

An actual documented case from the National Geographic Arctic Dreams and Nightmares : In the dark of winter, two veteran adventurers slog toward the North Pole while a third battles for his life off the coast of Siberia.
This kind of hell, of course, was exactly what they were looking for. These guys are professionals. They have sponsors—outdoor gear manufacturers, construction outfits, an adventure travel agency, a watch company—and their livelihoods involve doing extreme adventures. They didn't set out for things to fall that way; they were just doing what they loved. But after discovering they could earn a living—writing books, taking pictures, making films, and especially motivational speaking—by following their hearts, what was not to like?

Each had been adventuring since boyhood, practicing at taking incrementally higher and higher calculated risks, and at some point they left their comfort zones and never went back. For them, going to extremes that may seem insane was actually a logical progression.

You don't go to the North Pole in the dark as a first adventure, for instance; you start, as Børge did, growing up skiing and roaming the mountains of Norway. You start your life, get some kind of job. He worked as a diver for an oil company. Wore a copper helmet and big lead shoes and lead weights on his back and chest. Graduated to the depths of the North Sea, sometimes working for weeks at the bottom in a pressure chamber, inspecting oil rigs and working on pipelines. In between, he spent a couple of years in the Norwegian Navy, as a diver with the special forces. He loved training. His first expedition was a trek across Greenland with a couple of diver friends 20 years ago, before GPS and satellite phones. They relied on sextants, cotton, wool, and other equipment similar to that used by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian polar explorers of yesteryear and Børge's countrymen, in whose large footsteps he follows. That's when he got the bug. On this trip, he was wearing boots that were replicas of the ones Amundsen wore on his 1911 trek to the South Pole.

In Mike Horn's case, the pivotal point in his life, he says, came when he impulsively left his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Europe. A gifted athlete, who ran track and triathlons and played competitive rugby, he dreamed of competing internationally, maybe the Olympics. But South Africa, shunned by the world community at that time because of apartheid, was not allowed. At 18, he was drafted by the South African Army to fight a communist insurgency in Angola as a commando. Afterward, he went to college, then worked in his uncle's fruit and vegetable business. But the monotony got to him, and he longed to see the world. So he decided to give his stuff away and get on the next plane to the first country that would have him—Switzerland—where he took a job washing dishes in an old hotel. He learned to ski (he'd never seen snow before that) and became a ski instructor, then rafting guide, and paraglider (venturing to Peru and crashing near Machu Picchu). After swimming the Amazon for five months with a kickboard, he became an adventurer full-time.

Thomas Ulrich, whose expedition we'll get to later, grew up in the mountains around Interlaken, Switzerland, hiking, camping, alpine skiing, and racing. He was rock climbing and paragliding (at one point, he worked as a test pilot for a manufacturer) before the world at large knew much about paragliding. People would ask, why are you doing that? Or say to his parents, hey, you might want to check out your kid here. He seemed extreme. He worked some as a carpenter but felt bored and restless. He would take pictures during his mountain adventures, and one day he sent one to a magazine and the editors published it. That's when he first realized that he might be able to make money doing what he loved. He took an international mountain guide course and started a paragliding school while continuing to build an adventure photography business. When he was about 18, he took his first of many trips to Patagonia, to climb an 11,000-foot (3,350 meters) tooth of rock called Mount Fitz Roy, and that was the trip—the preparation, especially, the new culture, living in a tent—that propelled him into the world of extreme exploring.

The idea that these men have a death wish seems to amuse them. It isn't a desire to be closer to death that attracts them, they will tell you—it's a desire to be closer to life. They've been to the mountaintop. They know that willpower can be built, that ordinary people, like themselves, have abilities beyond their reckonings. They're just the ones who are out there, scouting the wilderness on behalf of the rest of us. Not marking dots on a geographical map anymore—that was accomplished long ago. What they're exploring now is the inner map, the mental and emotional map. What will they learn, about themselves, from being in a position where nothing matters except to stay alive? What, exactly, is the human being capable of? This is what drives them.

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