Controlled risk – there’s a motto to travel by. I learned that lesson from an Israeli with a broken neck, above 18,000 feet on top of a mountain in northern India.
But Betsy said I should write an introduction before I get into such a grim story.
Adventurers struggle with a paradox. The joy and, unfortunately, the danger in proper adventure is that you never know what will happen next. We want to push ourselves beyond some comfort zone in order to learn, grow and experience. While each step into the unknown ignites our sense of enthusiasm and excitement, it also exposes us to increasing degrees of hazard.
To walk down that dark street in a foreign city towards the laughter and music just beyond. To jump from that cliff into the blue lagoon far beneath your feet. To lace your boots for the next technical pitch. Or to clip into that mountain bike pedal for the rocky descent ahead. Each choice can create a memory that lasts or even defines a lifetime. Or a tragedy that ends one. Maybe that music leads to a thrilling and authentic milonga, or maybe it leads to a mugging. In Buenos Aires, music led me to both.
We travel in search of novel and thrilling experiences, uncharted territories, first ascents, epic feats and genuine cultural immersion. But those same experiences can break us. Ill-fated journeys may cast us adrift in unknown terrain, endanger us with exposure to the elements, or abuse us at the unkind hands of pickpockets, muggers or worse in a foreign country. These are the double-edged swords of adventure, wild and urban alike.
Back to my Israeli. In the summer of 2008, my father and I and a group of eight Englishmen and Scots hired a team of sherpas. We set out to bike over the tallest mountain pass in the world using specially outfitted mountain bikes, then descend out of the Himalayas over the course of one week into the fabled Indian village of Manali, where we would, presumably, eat a lot of curry.
Khardung La Pass stands at 18,379 feet above sea level. We began our final ascent in Leh, an Indian village with Tibetan aesthetics settled far below the pass. Leh is inaccessible due to weather and snow-covered roads for many months per year – only accessed only by thin dirt roads, which cling tenuously to the cliffs they traverse.
We ground up 7,000 feet in one seemingly vertical ascent from Leh, arriving at the summit some time after noon. Several of our teammates could not summit because of altitude sickness, or more probably exhaustion, which they disguised as altitude sickness. When my father and I summited, we donned every extra layer in our packs and chugged calories, liquid and solid alike. We prepared for the descent, which the cold winds hastened.
We rode down on a narrow dirt road used by Indian Army convoys to prepare war on Pakistan, shuttling men and weapons over the pass towards the western border. Only a few switchbacks from the pass’ summit, we found a cluster of people bent around a body in the road. An Israeli man lay in the middle, blood trickling from his mouth as he grasped the dirt in his hands and flailed his legs against the restraint of his friends.
He wore sandals, cotton shorts and a T-shirt. He had been riding an old flat-pedaled bicycle without shocks or substantial tread. And of course, he had no helmet when he crashed his bicycle to avoid being run over by an army truck.
The nearest hospital was, well, not near. No helicopter would come for this man. We were hundreds of rocky, twisting, mountainous miles from help. A group of Israeli medical students accompanied the man, and they informed me that his neck was broken.
I wondered how a group of Israelis, all of whom would have served several years in the military, could venture up the tallest mountain pass in the world in a remote corner of a developing country without any supplies, preparations or even proper clothing or bicycles. They had nothing but jeans and flip-flops and hard tailed bikes from the 1980’s.
To me, a core tenet of military training is preparedness – a thoughtfulness about what to bring and how to plan for eventualities. Perhaps they had forgotten some of their training...
Our sherpas drove a support vehicle full of supplies, our camping equipment, food, water, medical supplies and more. We cleared a space for the injured man in the truck bed, and said we could drive him to Leh. In Leh, we found a store with a soft neck brace – hardly sufficient to stabilize or comfort a broken neck, but something. The Israelis found a new truck, and set off for what must have been at least a day’s voyage to whatever basic medical services lay beyond the thin rocky roads connecting Leh to the south.
The lesson was not lost on me. The preparedness of our group had saved, maybe, the life of a man in another less prepared group. We had a truck because we were in a place that would kill you if you got hurt and couldn’t ride out. They had flip-flops.
Back to our paradox. The more uncertainty we inject into our travel, the more exhilarating and genuine the adventure. Sure, it would be cooler to say that I rode the pass without a support vehicle. But that would also increase my exposure to risk. My ethos for travel is to control risk as much as possible – to prepare for the worst so I can enjoy the best. Backup plans and the right equipment go a long way. These things let us engage in the thrill of adventure without fearing for our lives life when things don’t go as expected.
For me, the symbol of controlled risk during adventure is a rucksack. The pack represents a thought process – we control risk by preparing and packing for uncertainty. Whether we aim to climb a mountain or pitch in a boardroom, we bring the essential items that help us get the job done if and when circumstances change.
I’m proud to be a part of S&P because we make bags, and bags symbolize an aesthetic and a mentality of judicious adventure, which I hold dear.