Essay & Photography by
David Michael Lamb
The four men had just arrived in Resolute Bay after having been rescued from the North Pole. They were Americans, all pilots, and had flown one of their planes from Alaska to the pole. They landed on an ice floe at 90 degrees north. Because they wanted to. Because it would be awesome to do something only a select few others have ever done. Because if you have the gear and the ability to go to the North Pole, why wouldn’t you?
In many ways, this sort of thing wasn’t unusual for them. One of the group, Dick Rutan, had been the first person to ever fly a plane non-stop around the world in 1986.
On this day in May 2000, however, luck turned out not to be on their side. As they took photos of one another at the pole, the ice under their plane shifted, and it sank into the slush, right up to the wings.
Stranded at the top of the world, they radioed for help and within a day or so another plane came, rescued them and took them back to the Nunavut community of Resolute Bay, where I was assigned by the CBC to meet up with them and tell their story.
These four men were totally unphased at what had just happened to them. Don’t get me wrong – they were aware of the risks they had taken and knew a slightly different set of circumstances could have easily led to their deaths.
As they took photos of one another at the pole, the ice under their plane shifted, and it sank into the slush, right up to the wings.
But they were happy to accept such risks. What they got in return was a life of adventure, an opportunity to enter territory few other humans ever do, an existence where success is never guaranteed, where the outcome is uncertain, and where the potential rewards cannot be had anywhere else.
We live in a risk-averse world. H.L. Mencken said “the average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.” Most of us will do nothing to jeopardize the moderately-priced car in the driveway, the granite countertops in the kitchen or the winter holiday in the Caribbean.
It is this desire that prevents most of us from venturing anywhere near anything that could be described as unexplored. A land that has not been thoroughly mapped by Google and served by Verizon Wireless is no place for the timid, the unsure, or the soul who basks in the safety of the familiar.
If we even have the courage to ask ourselves whether we are willing to walk down the unmarked path, or into a place where there is no path at all, most of us would summarily conclude that the risks are too great.
The reality is that the further (or farther) we head out into the frontier, the greater the risks. The explorers who found new lands all risked death, and many failed to reach old age. So did Marie Curie, who discovered radiation and then was slowly poisoned to death by it.
The entrepreneur with a new product idea risks financial ruin, public humiliation, loss of reputation, although probably not starvation.
The writer flogging a bad novel is repeatedly rejected, ridiculed, and often walks down the path of mental illness.
The reality is that the further (or farther) we head out into the frontier, the greater the risks.
And yet, venturing into the unknown remains irresistible.
It is the place where creativity lives. Where we cast off the drudgery of routine and sameness, and look for something new.
In Beijing, you can see design at the frontier. The CCTV building, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Sheeren is like nothing ever built before. It doesn’t really even look like a building. It looks like a strange box that will probably fall over soon. It redefines what skyscrapers are. On the day it opened in 2012, Sheeren went so far as to say the building asks what architecture even is? What does it do? What is it for? We may have thought those questions were answered two thousand years ago by Vitruvius. In dedicating “On Architecture” to Augustus, he promises to “lay out all the principles of the discipline.” Reading such a work that has survived from antiquity to now, we could allow ourselves to take it as the final word. No need to ask or re-ask any more questions. But no. Incredibly, it’s still possible to construct a building that forces us to question everything we think.
One thing we do know is that the frontier is big. After centuries of building structures for ourselves to inhabit, we are still asking what architecture is. After going to the moon, landing a spacecraft on a comet, and diving to the deepest parts of the ocean, there are still mountains in Patagonia that have never been climbed, and bear no names. After solving such beguiling problems as polio and smallpox, malaria still kills millions, and new, deadly strains of influenza crop up continually.
The desire to explore, to understand, to discover knowledge, to create, is deep within us. It’s not overstating it to say this is what makes us human.
The explorer Fridjof Nansen said “we all have a land of beyond to seek in our life. What more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of everyone is the spirit of adventure.”
In 1910, Robert Falcon Scott set out with three colleagues to be the first humans to reach the South Pole. They were beaten by Roald Amundsen by about a month. On the march back to base camp from the pole, all four died.
Scott was a dedicated journal writer and so we know his thoughts right up to the end. In the last few days, when he knew death was coming, he wrote, “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint.”
Few men have ever ventured farther out onto the frontier than Scott, and no better summary of the acceptance of risk has ever been written.