Playing in the Forbidden Zone

By Beacon Staff

There’s been a run of adventure films recently. I took in “Gravity” the other day. It was fun, though I kind of missed the existential exploration you see in great science fiction such as, say, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The new Robert Redford film, “All is Lost,” apparently mines the same isolated adventure material, subbing a damaged yacht in the Indian Ocean for a beat up spacecraft in orbit.

Outer space and the ocean. Two very different places, though actress Sandra Bullock is ultimately challenged by both in “Gravity.” But what these environments share is that both are unfriendly to humans. Space and water. Humans don’t do well in either for long.

The threats of this inhospitable matrix — real and imagined — are intensified by the narrow margin for error. Make a mistake on a hike in the backcountry and you may need to be airlifted out. Make a mistake in space and your guts squirt out your eye sockets and then freeze in absolute zero. I don’t think that’s what really happens, but it sounds cool.

I say “imagined threats” since in space most of this remains science fiction. “Gravity” is mildly plausible, but it’s still a stretch from what our species can do off planet. The film “Apollo 13” depicted the challenge of surviving catastrophe in space in its more prosaic, boring reality.

I haven’t seen “All is Lost,” but the story of the Titanic long ago covered that base for me. Titanic is “Lost,” in a crowd. People get on a vessel, venture into a habitat in which they cannot survive without said vessel, then die en masse when that vessel springs a leak, casting its passengers out into the inhospitable matrix of the open ocean.

I’ve never been an extreme sport type and mostly avoided outdoor activities that put my life at risk. I did race motocross in my teens, but back then motocross largely adhered to the rules of gravity. The aerial displays common today in dirt bike racing were unheard of in my time. We saw a jump as something to execute as quickly and unspectacularly as possible. Time in the air was a diversion that meant your real wheel wasn’t on the ground propelling you toward the finish line. Now, for many, air time is what it’s all about.

Mount Everest is the closest humans can get to space under our own propulsion. The vessel in this case is the armor of high-performance cold weather gear mountaineers wrap themselves with, as well as bottles of oxygen. You have to pack along your own atmosphere when you climb up to where the air is too thin to support human life.

Everest once seemed the ultimate Earthbound adventure. I did a little climbing when I was younger, making it to the top of Mount Whitney in California a couple decades ago. That peak — at 14,505 feet it’s the highest point in the lower-48 — is well below the oxygen-bottle zone. So while challenging, I don’t consider the few hours I spent up there as time in the inhospitable matrix. People do die on Whitney, but most of the deaths I’ve heard about involve lightning strikes.
If not for a terrible fear of heights I might have gone all in on the mountain climbing stuff. Unfortunately, I get uneasy when I get even a few steps up a ladder. There are places on the Everest route where climbers weave their way up narrow trails with thousand foot drops on either side. That’s not for me.

I’m not so sure Everest remains the noble quest it once was. One of the biggest challenges climbers now face when trying to summit are the traffic jams caused by the crowds of inexperienced but wealthy climbers who pay big bucks to be led to the top.

And then there’s the nasty business of playing in the dead zone just so you can say you’ve been there. When the self-imposed pressure to summit is so compelling some will step over less fortunate climbers dying on the trail, so as not to be turned away when they’re so tantalizingly close, it’s hard to say that much remains noble about this quest.

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