Men who Dared

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by Featured Guest on February 7, 2012

By Carnivore

A friend sent me a link to the YouTube video below over 18 months ago. It’s a leisurely stroll down the El Camino del Rey, or the King’s Walkway, which is in Spain. I don’t have acrophobia – the sky deck of the Sears Tower doesn’t bother me. Take away the protection, such as guardrails and a sturdy floor, and it’s a different story. I can attest to the fact that watching this video in full screen mode is, ummm, interesting. Give it a try. The video starts out a little slow, but once the soundtrack picks up, it gets more exciting around 1:30.

The man doing the taping, Daniel Ahnen, is able to walk quickly because he is not using a safety harness as others do whom he bypasses. You can see some of Daniel’s art at his web site, youclimb.de. He’s an example of a ballsy guy taking risks. It’s men with a vision taking risks who bring about advancement, progress, art and the many things we take for granted in civilization.

Consider the risks taken by the men who originally built El Camino del Rey from 1901 to 1905. The path is only a meter wide and rises over 350 feet above the river below. It was built to allow workers to quickly travel between two dams. Without the walkway, they had to climb up and down the mountains which was both time consuming and dangerous. It is currently unused, in very poor repair with sections of the walkway missing and most of the guardrails gone. The early form of the walkway wasn’t much better:

I remembered the video when I recently came across a book in my collection, Ten Who Dared which hasn’t been cracked open in 20 years. Received as a gift on my birthday in 1977, it was the companion book to the television series, Ten Who Dared, aka The Explorers in the UK. (Not to be confused with the 1960 Disney movie, Ten Who Dared.) The series made an impression on me as a young man at the time. Each week, it related the story of an explorer, ten in all. They were:

  • Christopher Columbus – discoverer of America
  • Francisco Pizarro – conqueror of the Incas
  • James Cook – circumnavigated the globe and Britain’s greatest maritime explorer
  • Alexander von Humboldt – explorer of the Orinoco river in South America
  • Jedediah Smith – explorer of the American West
  • Robert Burke and William Wills – first to cross Australia from south to north
  • Henry Morton Stanley – led the first expedition of the Congo from east to west
  • Charles M Doughty – first western explorer of the Arabian Desert
  • Roald Amundsen – first to reach the south pole

Ten explorers, however, Burke and Wills are paired, so that only makes nine. Ah, yes. The series and book were produced in the mid-1970’s don’t forget. So there had to be, take a guess, a token female. In this case, none other than Mary Kingsley who explored Gabon. Whereas the male explorers listed above made treks measuring in hundreds and thousands of miles which lasted months and years, Kingsley’s expedition of 70 miles was a bit more modest:

Her trip – just seven days among the cannibals of Gabon – was one of the least extensive in the annals of discovery, but it revealed a brave woman, not only iná the physical hardships she endured, but in her forthright, farsighted expression of ideas of brotherhood.

So writes Desmond Wilcox, author of the book and head of the BBC department which produced the series. This attempt at political correctness was only a feeble first step, in line with the late 1970’s. Note the naivetÚ in the use of the word “brotherhood” which would be totally unacceptable today. For that matter, near the end of the book, one page contains a chronology of exploration listing 63 explorers including the featured eleven, with only two out of the 63 being female. The other female is Florence Baker who is listed along with her husband, Samuel Baker. I don’t know if Samuel is the only real explorer with his wife as a tag-along; I have no interest in researching her further. Perhaps even more unacceptable is the fact that the chronology is a list of white males. A much greater faux pas these days. Such a book would not be written today nor would such a TV series be produced.

One might argue that the contributions and the discoveries of the ten explorers overshadow the work of Daniel Ahnen. Perhaps that’s true. But, they have something very important in common – that male spark and drive to challenge the unknown. The narrator of the TV series, actor Anthony Quinn, put it best in the book’s preface:

When I signed on to narrate the television show on which this book is based, it wasn’t just another job. I feel a tremendous sense of kinship with people who dare to give shape to the unknown.

I get this feeling partly because I am an actor and I think of acting as exploration. To me, getting into a part is a voyage.

But I have a much larger reason for my feelings about the ten people in this book.

It’s sad that most of us live our lives trying to play it safe, taking few risks. As children we are used to constant challenges from other kids – the games of “I dare you” that force us to find courage to expand our world. But as we get older, fewer and fewer know how to turn the game into a way of life.

This knowledge is the key to daring on the highest human level – an artistic level. Certainly Paul Gauguin (an artist I played once in a picture) had it. He sacrificed a comfortable, safe life as a banker to go off and commit his life to painting. But so does any obscure writer facing a blank sheet of paper and preparing to expose his deepest feelings in words.

And so did these ten explorers – some famous, some obscure. They put their lives on the line to meet a challenge.

To some, the urge to face hardship and death was a raw compulsion to be first. But in any competition that has meaning, the most important thing is the competitor’s will to compete with himself – to get the best out of himself.

All of the ten, even the losers, had that will. In having it, and showing us that they had it, they help stretch everybody’s capacities for life.

While making movies, I’ve been to some of the places mentioned in this book. I’ve walked in the Arabian desert and felt the heat simmer up from the sand. Once, I was lost in the dunes for a while. I was overwhelmed by a sense of solitude and beauty. So I can see why a man might be enchantedá and driven by the spirit of the land he was exploring.

But that’s not essential. What counts is the dream each of the ten had. We all have dreams, but for the most of us they remain just that.

These ten people had the rare ability to reach out of the dream and touch reality. That’s what we really mean when we say they dared.

Daniel Ahnen, the man who taped the King’s Walkway video, perished in May of 2011 while trekking in the Chamoli district of India, at 35 years of age. He accidentally slipped and fell into a gorge. He, too, was a man who dared.


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