What does empathy have to do with exploration?

April 6, 2014

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Mountain Shadow Phenomenon seen from Volcán Tajumulco, Guatemala 

Perspective in the mountains is a unique and remarkable thing. Not only do mountains illustrate the minute size of a single human life, which they do with sometimes overwhelming clarity, they also play host to spectacular displays of light as well as incredible natural wonders such as the Brocken Spectre and the Mountain Shadow Phenomenon.

Alpine climbing and high altitude trekking as activities in themselves also give rise to unique and spellbinding perspectives. From turquoise lakes to fearsome cliffs, and from marmots to condors, in the mountains there is never a dull moment for a curious mind. However, what is perhaps most surprising about these activities and the dramatic mountain environments we are drawn to, is that it is not the where but the who that really encapsulates travel as a transformative experience. Even amongst the most wondrous landscapes, it is the people and the moments we remember.

In order to reach the wildest places in our world, most of us must travel large distances, away from the homogenised normalities of our safe suburban lives. For the absolute explorer, high mountain expeditions are like any other in that they begin as soon as you leave the front door. This mentality is difficult to achieve, and for many of us as adventure seekers we force ourselves to travel great distances, to get away from mechanised routine and to encounter a great diversity of people, each going about their own unique journey – with all the pains, pleasures, anxieties and ambitions that we all know well – yet they are different, in ways that one can never possibly comprehend. Understanding all the factors that make the person you are meeting them at that time, is simply too complex.

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Meeting Kyrgyz nomads in the high mountains of Northeastern Afghanistan

To fully explore, however, is not only to observe. More than anything, observation, especially the observation of other people, is about learning. Indeed, it is through others that we develop our own selfhood and thus our own view and understanding of the world. Furthermore, to learn is to admit the absence of knowledge and for many in today’s advanced and information-loaded societies this is an admission of weakness. I believe it is this vulnerability that makes travelling and experiencing new cultures such a powerful experience of learning – not just about others, but about ourselves.   

This fragility is maximised amidst great mountains, not due to danger but because of our newfound exposure. In the world of climbing ‘exposure’ means to be confronted with the threat of death (long drops, high winds, thin air, etc.), it is not necessarily a state of danger but rather a rational appreciation of the fine balance between life and death. This basic human consideration is one that that modern life has done its best to eradicate, yet it is a powerful and life enhancing comprehension. This exposure necessitates great care and respect, and an appreciation that these huge mountains are far beyond our ownership. Otherwise, death will present itself.

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Don’t look down! Exposure in climbing is replicated in other ways too.

Exposure replicates itself throughout life, through travel and the meetings of different cultures. In every case, the same care and respect is required to fully gain from experience, to understand one’s connectivity and to learn from the world and others. People in the mountains are embedded in cultures of the land, in the power of ancient gods, and in a real life struggle for existence amongst the elements. For urban moderns, these lessons are all the more crucial.

Yet, tourism as an industry is yet to fully realise this. Caught up as it is in mass commerce, private interests and classical economics, even today most tourism is causing more harm than good. It does this by transferring cultural bubbles and creating artificial, safe and sanitised “packages” which usually result in minimal cross-cultural interaction, a fair amount of post-colonial arrogance and limited opportunity to present well-meaning tourists with opportunities to genuinely expose themselves to new perspectives.

Project Cordillera aims to disrupt this and to offer spellbinding mountain exploration that opens up new perspectives and creates positive, two-way social and cultural interaction. We live for purpose and not for profit, we are not content with the status quo and we learn through action and collaboration while empathically respecting the journeys of all. Join us and be part of the change.  

By Sam Williams, Sunday 6th April 2014

To learn more about empathy and its relationships to civilisation, see this great video by the RSA and Jeremy Rifkin.

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