Teenage Wasteland

Earlier today, news sites reported that 16-year-old Abby Sunderland has sent out an emergency distress call from the middle of the volatile Indian Ocean while on her attempt to sail solo around the world. As of writing this blog, her fate is still unknown but the controversy is already in full roil. In May 2010, 13-year-old Jordan Romero was escorted to the summit of Mount Everest. Earlier this year a 17-year-old named Johnny Collinson completed the fabled seven summits. These events have had a polarizing effect on the outdoors community – are these accomplishments to be admired and emulated or are they merely the combination of privilege and circumstance?

16-year-old Abby Sunderland was attempting to sail around the world solo.

Of course, the answer is as muddy and unclear as the Ganges River. Given the opportunity, who among us in our adventurous teenage years would turn down a chance to climb Everest? I know if someone offered to pay my way and guide me to the summit I’d have been there without hesitation. I probably still would today. Likewise, if your parents bought you your own boat and you were brought up in a family of daring sailors, going around the world sounds like a pretty fun outing. The publicity and fame ain’t gonna hurt either.

When it comes to the teen publicity machine, opinions are not in short supply. The apocryphal public outcry offers heightened, laudatory praise for victory and scathing, damning judgment in defeat. The accomplishments themselves bear the stigma of spoiled rights that have not been earned, but rather bought. Media outlets amplify and further polarize the issues.

John Krakauer’s riveting account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster Into Thin Air elegantly states that there was a time when such endeavors were earned after years of apprenticeship. These were not cultural standards but the rules by the challenges themselves. If we are going to blame raw financial advantages we might as well lump in all the technology that has made climbing lighter, warmer and safer or the GPS units that make navigating the seven seas child’s play – or teenager’s play. There is no doubt the game is easier. However, the allure of the accomplishment remains intact as most of these benchmark adventures still bring to mind the glamorous perceived danger and daring from another age.

Not many people remember Roald Amundsen and the crew of Gjøa, who successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in 1906.

Eventually the goal itself is subject to dilution. For example, had I paddled solo through the Northwest Passage it would have had very little impact on the world at large, minus Arctic enthusiasts. It was this same route that captivated Britain for hundreds of years with a manic obsession that cost dozens of men their lives and resonated in the lore of British history. When Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally solved the problem in 1906, he did so in what was essentially a beefed up, floating bath tub. Brits begrudgingly granted him victory but maintained he did it in poor style.  (Apparently good style to the Brits meant eating your own shoes, contracting scurvy and freezing to death). Not too different than our 13 year old tyke who followed fixed ropes to the top of the world. He gets no style points but the deed is done.

Victory is victory.

And conversely, the second 13 year old to climb Everest will get a nice pat on the back, but no book deal – unless of course they climb solo, with no oxygen, etc.  The guy who builds his own kayak and treks across Arctic sea ice to paddle the complete Northwest Passage won’t even register on our cultural radar. If you’re looking to be the next universally respected explorer, your best chance is being the first man on Mars. All the other places that are well-known enough to warrant mass public appeal and dangerous enough to captivate the imagination have already been done.

As the search is on for Abby Sunderland, I certainly hope no harm has come to her. There is already a debate – is encouraging your child to sail solo around the world child abuse or simple ultra-supportive parenting? Even though she was 16, Abby certainly had accrued a good amount of experience. No one would be critical of the 44-year-old with the same amount of time at the helm. Perhaps that’s what engages so many people sitting on the sidelines. Much like the dregs of society beating one another with plastic chairs on Jerry Springer give a weird version of elevated identity to shock-value junkies, so do teens with a wealth of resources and  strong wills. Their successes and failures serve as a gauge of self-righteousness of the beholder. As long as superlatives of adventure dominate the headlines, you can bet your sweet oxygen tank that when a plucky 9-year-old stands atop Mount Everest, you’ll hear all about it — whether you want to or not. I can’t help but thinking the reputation of the challenge itself is marginalized in victory and rebuilt with each defeat – and as long as Mother Nature is in control, for every teenager who scales the highest heights, there is bound to be a young counterpart pulled to the bottom of the sea.

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