Telling the Next Great Adventure Story

According to CHRIS KEYES, the vice president and editor of Outside

The road ahead via Shutterstock     Photo: f9photos

The greatest adventure story of the next century will almost certainly involve a helmet-cam or multiple body-cams or omnipresent live-streaming cameras you can’t even see. You will be alerted by push notification when something important is happening, then watch as a 3D map is updated in real time with video and each athlete’s twitter feed. While reclining in your La-Z-Boy, you’ll track heart rates, power outputs, and hear the quickening breath of some yet-to-be-born super alpinist as she climbs the Seven Summits in Seven Days (FYI, I’ve trademarked that). In short, the big adventure of the next century will involve—surprise!—quite a bit of wiz-bang technology.

But here’s my bold prediction: no matter how audacious the athletic objective, it will only resonate on a large scale if it involves two decidedly old-school factors. First, someone has to die. If that sounds cynical it’s because it is. But it’s also true. It’s my job to know the adventure-story canon forward and backward, and aside from Shackleton’s Endurance epic, I can’t think of another impactful adventure story that didn’t involve some unfortunate soul taking his last breath. From The Worst Journey in the World to Alive to Into Thin Air to A Perfect Storm to A Voyage for Madmen, it’s the tragedy that makes an ambitious undertaking—or foolhardy mission, depending on your point of view—so compelling. Success is so forgettable. 

Second, the odds of some future expedition having a wide cultural impact will be greatly increased if a talented writer is embedded. Any expedition can produce content by the terabyte, but only a gifted storyteller can sift through all the material, capture the most salient points, and discard the rest to make the whole thing come to life—whether it’s on paper or an image projected in front of your eyes as you lie in bed. Longform narrative storytelling isn’t going away, but there will always be a shortage of people who can do it well. That shortage is even more dire in the adventure realm, where first-person accounts require a dual-threat—someone who can climb the peak and mold a great narrative. It was Jon Krakauer being able to climb Everest and write about it so pointedly that made Into Thin Air what it was. Few people like that exist, especially in an era when the greatest athletes start specializing at age 10 or younger, leaving little time for pursuing a passion for literary craft. But if the aforementioned super-alpinist also happens to have a reporter’s instinct and a way with words—and a climbing partner willing to die from exposure at 27,000 feet in exchange for literary immortality—my money is on her.

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