Breaking Records

Broken Records

The oldest, youngest, fastest, or baldest to row backwards across the Pacific? Please don't ask me to care.

Breaking Records
Jason Daley

Listen to Podcast version

Qualified Success

A Sampling of Seven Summits Pioneers

1985: Dick Bass becomes the first, though Reinhold Messner soon creates a competing Seven Summits list.
1992: the first woman
2002: the first blind guy
2003: A 70-year-old becomes the oldest.
2003: I stop caring.
2004: the first married couple
2006: An Indian sets the speed record.
2006: A Canadian says, “No way, eh. I’m the fastest.”
2006: A 20-year-old becomes the youngest.
2006: American Kit DesLauriers is the first to ski down them.
2006: Slovenian Davo Karnicar says, “Whatever. I’m the firs…

Breaking Records

Breaking Records

FOR THE BETTER PART of a decade, there’s been an Excel spreadsheet on my computer desktop. I used it during my stint as Outside’s Dispatches editor and later as an “adventure news” columnist to track all the expeditions, feats, and records taking place around the world. In its day, that spreadsheet recorded an honor roll of incredible accomplishments: Chris Sharma sending the first 5.15 climb; the first descent of Tibet’s Upper Tsangpo River; Børge Ousland’s solo crossing of the Arctic; Ellen MacArthur’s solo round-the-world sailing record.

But more often than not, it’s been crammed with accomplishments that make me groan, mainly because I know I’ll have to interview the schmo about his “triumph.” Just glancing over the past few months, there’s a Brit who skateboarded across Australia; an American who logged first ascents on 63 Tibetan peaks that were too small for anyone else to have bothered with, then compared himself to Neil Armstrong; and a Brazilian who rode what he believed was the world’s longest surfboard. (A longer one had been ridden a year earlier. It’s a sad commentary on my career that I was able to catch the discrepancy.) Even Dean Karnazes, who has completed truly noteworthy feats like running 350 miles nonstop, wants to “run” from California to Hawaii in a giant inflatable hamster wheel. The unfortunate truth is, as a gatekeeper and critical link in the information chain, I’ve fueled a culture where novelty feats get more ink than legitimate athletic accomplishments. I’ve helped relegate all outdoor and adventure sports, even the most inspiring, to the News of the Weird.

Sour grapes? Yeah, sure. The only record I will ever set is for consecutive hours browsing adventure-news blogs in my boxers. And, yes, these “records” often take real stamina, training, and dedication. But there is a big problem when the sheer volume of stunts crowds out coverage of truly outstanding achievements. Ever hear of Marko Prezelj and Boris Lorencic? Paul Landry? Didn’t think so. But around the same time the wire services were spewing copy about giant surfboards, Prezelj and Lorencic were putting up a stunning six-day climb on 23,997-foot Chomolhari, in Tibet—a feat that won them the Piolet d’Or, climbing’s highest honor (which Prezelj ridiculed, saying, “I don’t believe in awards for alpinism”). And Landry was leading one of the most difficult Antarctic treks ever—traveling to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, the most remote spot on the white continent, on foot.

Too often, expeditions are less about exploring what’s undiscovered or pushing the human body to new limits and more about gimmickry designed to get the biggest bang from a media/PR/sponsorship complex that rewards the silliest achievements with the biggest headlines. The expectation now is that to be a worthy piece of adventure news, quirk needs to match—or trump—physical achievement.

Which brings me to the worst record whores of them all: the Seven Summiters. At least Texan Dick Bass, who was the first to tick off the highest peak on each continent, in 1985, was visionary enough to dream up the list, however contrived. Those following in his footsteps, whether on skis or backwards or quickly, are mere also-rans. They can’t even agree which seven mountains are on the roster. Last year a Canadian and an Indian both claimed the speed record (they climbed different lists). Amid their sniping, I was forwarded more than a dozen e-mails from a climber arguing that, because of misunderstandings about Oceania’s boundaries, 14,793-foot Mount Wilhelm, in Papua New Guinea—not 16,023-foot Carstensz Pyramid, in Papua, which the Canadian climbed, or 7,310-foot Kosciusko, in Australia, which the Indian summited—is the highest point in Australia/Oceania. This development would mean (a) you guessed it, said spammer is the world’s only “true” Seven Summiter, and (b) all the debates up until this point have mattered even less than I thought.

So what is actually worth covering? When it comes to records, they should be difficult, minimally supported, and never sponsored by Red Bull, and they should carry no more than two qualifiers. First woman to sail around the world? Good. First bi-curious woman to sail around the world with a glass eye? I’ll pass. Real records need weight and authenticity. They must have some relation to the tradition of adventure and represent a true evolution of a sport. They’re out there. But they’re not always screaming at us like the headline about the man who took an ironing board up Aconcagua.

I can’t stop the freak frenzy. But I can stop feeding into it. From now on I will no longer pimp contrived, unworthy feats. Instead I will stick to true epics, the type that I can be proud to present to the world. No more profiles of human slingshots. Sayonara to extreme unicycling. Adios to blindfolded through-hikers and round-the-world pogo stickers. My keyboard will give you comfort no more. (Except for maybe Karnazes’s hamster-wheel thing. I bet the photos will be killer.)