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Letter from Asgard

Letter from Asgard

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Odin
October 2017 | Read
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 - The Jöttnar Odin Blog -

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Welcome to the new LEGEND editorial feature series: the Jöttnar Odin Blog. A source of expert long-form commentary, insight, and reflection on all dimensions of mountain culture and the adventurous life.

In the first part, Odin reflects on the achievements of American climber Charlie Porter (1950 - 2014) and French yachtsman Bernard Moitessier (1925 - 1994), and how the way they lived might shape future journeys into the great unknown.

 

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Against the pale immensity of the Turner Glacier, a lone figure moves across the ice with slow, laboured steps. It’s August 1975. The short Arctic summer is almost gone. Behind him, the north face of Mount Asgard rises into the sky. Shadows flicker across the slender pillar that separates it from the west face to the right. Emaciated and in ragged clothes, the climber has just descended the mountain in a storm after making the first ascent of that beautiful pillar over nine days, in forty pitches of difficult aid and mixed climbing, completely alone and self-sufficient. His food supply has dwindled to virtually nothing, and he has no means of contacting the nearest civilization, a week’s walk away: this is before the era of the satellite phone. To survive, he must now make the long journey down to Pangnirtung, with the possibility of attack by polar bears an omnipresent danger. It will take him ten days.

That lone figure on the Turner Glacier is Charlie Porter, one of the most remarkable climbers of the late twentieth century, who died in Chile in 2014. A notoriously reticent character, Porter did not release any information to the press about his 1975 climb, despite the fact it was the first modern, technical route on Mount Asgard. Nor did he give it a name, contrary to the tradition climbers have of naming their climbs. Appropriately, it is now known as The Charlie Porter Route.

It was months before news finally leaked out into the climbing world, and Porter’s achievement was acknowledged for what it really was: an astonishing feat of technical innovation, endurance, and wilderness survival. The route was later described by British mountaineering legend Doug Scott as “the greatest achievement in Baffin, the Arctic, or probably anywhere.”

 

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The unmistakable twin-towered peak of Mount Asgard rises from the ice sheets of the Turner Glacier on Baffin Island.

Photograph by Alastair Lee (www.posingproductions.com)


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Porter’s unwillingness to publicise his 1975 Mount Asgard climb was subconsciously informed by the Scandinavian concept of Jantelagen, or the Law of Jante: a pattern of behaviour that avoids self-promotion and the public presentation of personal achievement. First described by the Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, it’s best explained as a code of living in diametric opposition to the ‘selfie culture’ that’s emerged over the past decade. As the smartphone has transformed the world, the incessant distribution of meaningless personal information has gained a social relevance and respectability that Sandemose would have probably found disturbing.

The paradigm shift between the reclusive Charlie Porter and the digitally connected,  perpetually ‘shared’ climbing culture of today reflects an intriguing process much broader and more complicated than climbing itself: the way in which the digital age is changing the way we think, the way we communicate, and what our culture considers valuable. Katie Ives, the editor of Alpinist magazine, describes this process in a moving tribute to Porter published shortly after he died in 2014:

“We live in a society that has become increasingly noisy and glaringly bright. Advances in new media allow for ever-more seductive forms of communication with ever-more pervasive reach. Economic and cultural forces amplify information that can be easily packaged and forwarded. A glossy hyper-reality substitutes for the unimaginable depths of original, solitary experience. Mystery is replaced with all-exposure.”

 

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Does the act of publishing an adventure in some way corrupt it? Can the public revelation of solitary experience dilute its meaning? And to what extent can a personal journey be ‘shared’ before it no longer becomes personal at all?

 

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If the achievements of solitary adventurers like Charlie Porter stand in opposition to the values of the digital world, then they also demand urgent questions about what the concept of ‘adventure’ itself might mean. A well known British mountain film festival uses the slogan ‘Share the Adventure’. That’s all very well, of course. 'Sharing is Caring', in fact, as a widely-used social media platform likes to say in its marketing communications. Getting people to share their personal information with abandon also happens to be an excellent way of generating a lot of cash from the deception that they’re using a free service, but that’s another discussion.

Does the act of publishing an adventure in some way corrupt it? Can the public revelation of solitary experience dilute its meaning? And to what extent can a personal journey be ‘shared’ before it no longer becomes personal at all? These are questions that should be considered by anyone who wants to lead an examined life.

A scientist and an introverted intellectual, Charlie Porter perhaps believed that there wasn’t much point in shouting about his 1975 route on Mount Asgard because, since he was alone up there, the climb only really had consequence for him personally. A mystic does not broadcast what it’s like to be a mystic, perhaps because it is not possible to define that at all. It might be what the critic and philospher George Steiner was getting at when he talked about “a truth more intense than knowledge”.

The French sailor Bernard Moitessier’s extraordinary book The Long Way - a chronicle of his solo circumnavigation of the world in 1968-69 in his yacht Joshua - is a visionary account of a journey in which adventure becomes a route to mystical experience. In it, he shows that any meaningful quest should, at heart, be a deeply personal rather than public experience. As a whole, the book strongly suggests that the true value of an adventure might be the freedom from temporal concerns that can be gained through it. The demands of both the human ego and of time could be gathered up and spirited away by the awesome power of the elements in which Moitessier immersed himself:

“I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on Earth, a nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation… which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, and light, and peace, there is no ruler besides the sea.”

 

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Those who use adventure as a search for wisdom rather than a route to fame will always remain the true explorers, heroes, and magicians of the exploratory life.

 

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Despite the dramatic changes in climbing, mountaineering, and adventure culture over the past four decades, it’s surely more important than ever that the achievements of people like Charlie Porter and Bernard Moitessier are remembered, and that the values they promoted are endorsed and celebrated. If their legacy can be defined at all, it is that those who use adventure as a search for wisdom rather than a route to fame will always remain the true explorers, heroes, and magicians of the exploratory life.

Up there on Mount Asgard in 1975, utterly alone and self-reliant, Porter must have found what so many today desperately seek but never find: an overwhelming sense of being in the heart of his own life. Through climbing, Porter gained a visceral understanding of the mysterious self-contained faith the Victorian poet and critic William Ernest Henley wrote about in his 1888 Book of Verses. And no doubt Moitessier understood it, too, out there on the high seas aboard Joshua.

Henley, who suffered from tubercular arthritis, conjured up a brilliant testament to the power of the human will over physical circumstance in his poem ‘Invictus’. A favourite of Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment on Robben Island, the final stanza could also define the largest ambition of any wilderness adventure. Here, Henley could be talking about the strange, lonely freedom that Charlie Porter found high on Mount Asgard in 1975, or that Bernard Moitessier knew somewhere on the Southern Ocean six years before:

 

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.



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- The second edition of the Jöttnar Odin Blog will be published here on LEGEND in October -



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