Sunday, 8 May 2011

Wonder and Marvel

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious...whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead...”
Albert Einstein

How do we define an expedition? It will surely mean different things to different individuals.

Wikipedia (2011) states that an expedition typically refers to a long journey or voyage undertaken for a specific purpose, often exploratory, scientific, geographic, military or political in nature.
Expeditions perhaps go back as far as hunting and gathering, the earliest humans setting out on a journey in search for food to survive, mercantile traders setting out on voyages for commercial gain, and military expeditions on campaigns to meet specific objectives in foreign countries. Scientific expeditions for research and discovery, and spiritual journeys of reflection, pilgrimage and rites of passage. For each of the individuals involved, their expedition will hold different meaning and significance. The purpose of the expedition will be different, the greatest gain potentially being to the individual, the group or indeed the environment.

Collins dictionary (2011) is very similar to our first definition, but goes one further to express that an expedition is also 'the people and equipment comprising an expedition'. This is one step closer to what I would define as my own understanding of expeditions. The closest though, is the following. Chris Bonington, the best known mountaineer in Britain for more than fifty years states:
To me, adventure involves a journey, or a sustained endeavour, in which there are the elements of risk and of the unknown, which have to be overcome by the physical skills of the individual. Furthermore, an adventure is something that an individual chooses to do and, where the risk involved is self-imposed and threatens no one but himself.” (Bonington, 1981)
As well as the common theme of a journey, this definition brings in the ideas of adventure, risk, physical skills, mental skills, individuality and awareness and compassion towards others –  these perhaps the most important when exploring the value of outdoor expeditions as a vehicle for personal challenge. Miles and Priest (1990) see adventure in a similar way - a venture forth into the unknown, undertaking activities that may involve risk and unknown outcomes. Hopkins and Putnam (1993) bring in again this idea of the mind as well as the body, stating that 'adventure can be of the mind and spirit as much as a physical challenge'.

The desire to experience the unknown is in us all – just watch the excitement of a baby who has learnt to walk and has a whole new world opened up to him to explore, the simple pleasure for a child in a game of pass the parcel, to the desire to taste new foods as an adult, the risky world of stocks and shares, or gambling. The seeking after the unknown can make us feel alive.
Adventure speaks of beginning, boldness, and power. Adventure connotes   participation and active involvement in life. An adventure, a quest, begins because of a human desire, a drive to experience that which is hidden and unknown.” (Quinn, 1990)
But our seeking after the unknown may not always be positive. What is it about outdoor adventure that seems to offer such a holistic and constructive experience for individuals?

Mortlock (1984) speaks of the 'University of the Wilderness' and how the natural environment offers us the chance to consciously take up a challenge that will demand the best of our capabilities, both physically, mentally and emotionally. He believes it is a 'state of mind that will initially accept unpleasant feelings of fear, uncertainty and discomfort, and the need for luck, because we instinctively know that, if we are successful, these will be counterbalanced by feelings of exhilaration and joy'. I agree with this to a greater extent, for example, when caving I feel discomfort in my tight surroundings, there is a fear of getting stuck, and the surroundings are unknown to me, I know however that I will be rewarded with those feelings of joy and exhilaration on getting through a tight squeeze safely and upon discovering those bigger caverns with their stalactites and stalagmites, and seeing a whole unknown world open up to me underground. I do however feel that while an element of fear and uncertainty nearly always comes into it, this isn't necessarily always discomforting. With a 5 day multi-pitch climbing expedition to North Wales quick approaching, I am experiencing uncertainty and fear over whether or not I am fit enough to keep up with the others in my group for the entire trip, or whether the grades of the routes will be realistic for me to climb, but rather than a feeling of discomfort, I feel excited by the challenge and a have drive to push myself - physically, mentally and emotionally.

I know that being a member of a team is crucial to meeting that challenge and achieving those goals. Hopkins and Putnam (1993) state that the outdoors is 'a powerful medium for exploring the nature of community... in the pursuit of challenging physical objectives we are often engaged in creating social structures which underpin our physical successes.' In an expedition journal excerpt Henderson (1990) expresses that 'for fleeting moments, the shared humanity was comforting, revealing an added depth to our adventure.' When a team works effectively together it is because of effective communication, negotiated common goals, empathy and tolerance, openness, innovation, positive leadership and a range of abilities and experiences. For the maximum potential of these to be realised, this can often take time and is an active learning process. Tuckman (1965) proposed a four-stage model suggesting that the ideal group decision making process should be comprised of 'Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing'. This looks at the idea that a group first pretends, or indeed gets along with one another, before trying to focus on the task at hand where ideas are expressed and tempers may flare up but which hopefully and eventually leads to getting used to each other and forming trust, resulting in productivity, and being highly effective, working towards a common goal. For expeditions to be successful, I believe it is fundamental for the group to reach the 'Performing' stage. The group may go through the difference stages, during different points of the expedition, perhaps even taking steps backwards at some point. But ultimately for the team to achieve the qualities listed above, and to work effectively, they need to trust each other, and have the same common goal.

As well as the various types of expeditions, as explored earlier, and challenges faced in working as a team, there are also the personal and individual challenges too. What can I, as an individual, gain from outdoor expeditions? And does it take a certain type of person to meet these challenges? Mortlock (1984) looks at the great adventurers and explorers were they people 'unusual in the sense that they have persevered when most people would have given up'?  They have pushed their limits beyond what they thought they were capable of. However, I believe this is something we are all capable of, and our journeys in the outdoors can be a means of realising that potential. Of the first conquest of Annapurna, Herzog (1952) says of the experience:
“In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man's world, we     have come to know something of its true splendour. In my worst moments of anguish I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw it was better to be true than to be strong.”
Perhaps, it is in these times of fear, uncertainty and discomfort that we can see more clearly.
“Adventurous journeys and activities in the outdoors and the wilderness have long been seen as a means of increasing self-knowledge and resourcefulness; both the demanding nature of the task and the awe-inspiring setting contributing to the power of the experience.” (Hopkins & Putnam, 1993)
As well as the physical and demanding challenges we face on expeditions, perhaps the most important challenges we face regarding personal development, are that of increased self-awareness.

This self-awareness enables us to look back on our expeditions with greater clarity, to take more from the experiences and realise an even greater potential for learning. If it is the unknown we once sought and desired, does the unknown ever become the known? What can we take from our experiences once they are over? Quinn, (1990) states that 'without active seeking, without attempting to, and going beyond what one already knows one can accomplish, there is no growth. Strenuousness of mind, heart, and body engenders growth.' We cannot just expect this clarity of mind to come from such outdoor experiences without any effort, but that it in fact needs to be sought to be realised. In order to learn, we must construct our own knowledge, reflect on our experiences and re-evaluate our learning.

Gibbs (1988) presented a model of reflection, which provides us some structure to carrying out reflection. He suggests a cycle of Description, Feelings, Evaluation, Analysis, Conclusion, Action Plan. First we must look at the event – where, when, who, why and put it into context. We can then recall and explore how it made us feel – before, during, and after, and how did it make others feel. By evaluating our experience we can look at what was good or bad, what did or didn't work, which enables us to honestly analyse and explore in more detail. In our conclusion we can go about constructing what we have learnt from the previous stages. And finally our action plan looks at how to apply what you have learnt and what will you change.

Of course this is just one model for reflection but it is one way for us to gain maximum learning from our outdoor expeditions. 'The higher the demands of the action or experience, the greater the opportunity for learning, evolving, and eventually fulfilling our potential' (Mortlock, 2009). What is important is to see our reflection as much as a part of the expedition as the physical aspects of it too:
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again - so why bother in the first place? Just this; what is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs - one sees, one descends - one sees no longer; but one has seen.” (Daumal, 1967)
Not every day will involve opportunities for expeditions in the outdoors but when we are presented with the chance, we can take responsibility for gaining as much as we can from the challenges that we are presented, whether physical or mental. And what we take from those experiences can influence our every day actions and choices.

It is my hope that this essay has addressed the value of outdoor expeditions as a vehicle for personal challenge. The reality for me? Every day is an expedition, life in its totality is an expedition. Surely every day has as element of the unknown – what will each new day bring? What does life hold in store for me? For us?
“Granted that I am the master of my own destiny, how shall I fulfil that destiny?” (Novak, 1970)
To answer that question, I have summarised my feelings in the following phrase – Live to learn, Learn to live. In order to fulfil our potential we need to live to learn, to be passionate about learning and seek learning in all we do. This will enable us to deal with the various eventualities' life throws at us. Let us approach each day as an adventure, a challenge, to see what we are capable of, to feel alive.


Bonington, C. (1981) Quest for Adventure, London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Daumal, R. (1967) Mount Analogue: a novel of symbolically authentic non-Euclidean adventures in mountain climbing, San Francisco: City of Lights Books.
Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods, Oxford: Further Education Unit, Oxford Polytechnic.
Henderson, R. (1990) 'Every trail has a story: the heritage context as adventure' In: J. Miles and S.Priest, eds. Adventure Education, Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, p. 138.
Herzog, M. (1952) Annapurna, London: Pimlico.
Hopkins, D. and Putnam, R. (1993) Personal Growth Through Adventure, London: David Fulton Publishing Ltd.
Miles, J. and Priest, S. (1990) Adventure Education, Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing.
Mortlock, C. (2009) The Spirit of Adventure, Kendal: Outdoor Integrity Publishing Ltd.
Mortlock, C. (1984) The Adventure Alternative, Cumbria: Cicerone Press.
Novak, M. (1970) The experience of nothingness, New York: Harper and Row.
Tuckman, B. (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological bulletin, 63, pp. 384-399
Quin, B. (1990) 'The Essence of Adventure' In: J. Miles and S.Priest, eds. Adventure Education, Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, pp. 145-147.


Collins. (2011) Expedition [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2011]
Wikipedia. (2011) Expedition [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2011]

COPYRIGHT Menna Pritchard 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment