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Getting There First

Courtesy of Mountain Travel Sobek The first descent down the Awash River in Ethiopia.

Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Travel Sobek

Of course, cresting a virgin mountain is never a walk in the park. "It’s very easy to romanticize mountaineering, as compared with actually doing it. Sleeping out at minustwenty day after day, going to bed cold, and waking up in the cold loses its romance," says the company’s founder, Todd Burleson. For the price tag, he says, "there are a lot of people in the world who would rather buy a new car."

Or maybe float down an unrun stretch of river. Mountain Travel Sobek has conducted about three dozen first descents. Unlike ascents of mountains, many river trips require no prior training. If passengers are particularly incompetent, they can be carried along as, essentially, animate cargo. Just this past March, the company made the first commercial descent of the Upper Mekong river in China, a 15day trip that wound past remote villages and through several Class Four rapids. Harold (Hal) Newman Jr., who was on the Upper Mekong trip, says it wasn’t that hard. "This was not a wilderness trip," he says. "The river goes down through a lightly inhabited narrow canyon valley, with a village about every three to five miles. Nothing on the water was that challenging."

But like first ascents, first descents inherently carry a degree of uncertainty and risk. When Sobek organized the first descent of the Boh River in Indonesia in the late eighties, the journey was so fraught with peril that one of the passengers, Tracy Johnston, wrote a book, Shooting the Boh, which recounts food shortages, raft flippings, irritating insects, and backbreaking portages. She wrote that after the trip one of her fellow passengers said that "his lawyer friends had all called him a fool for not suing Sobek."

Mountain Travel Sobek’s cofounder, Richard Bangs, acknowledges that the excursion had its problems, but says hardship is part of the game. "Usually there are a lot of unknowns, and anxiety and tension" on a first descent, he says. "It’s all about celebrating chaos."

Through dozens of books and innumerable multimedia ventures, Bangs has done more than anyone else to promote the idea of first river descents. He points out that, in an age in which our notions of foreign places are thoroughly influenced by all the TV shows and movies and magazine articles from those who have gone before us, a First allows us to experience an asyetunmediated part of the earth. "The greatest joy of a first descent is when you are overwhelmed," he says. "It’s your own private experience. There are so few of those around."

So few—and ever fewer. They’re not making any new rivers or mountains. Competition to pioneer new climbing routes has become so intense, says David Roberts, that it’s ruined the spirit of camaraderie that once infused the sport. "The natural challenges are gone," he says. "It’s all about fighting over what’s left." Some climbing guidebooks don’t even list first ascents anymore.

And yet, so long as untrodden routes remain, there will be souls who yearn to prove themselves there.

The same impulse to demonstrate our uniqueness has spread beyond simple peaks and rivers. Luxury adventuretour operators report that more and more clients are looking for achievements that they can call their own. "They want to do things that no one has ever done," says Bill Bryan, cofounder of Off the Beaten Path, an adventure operator specializing in custom travel in the American West and Patagonia. One, a 58yearold New Yorker, asked Bryan to put together a 700-mile horse trek across the length of Montana. The trip took a year to organize and two months to complete. "He’d done trips all over the world, and he wanted to do something special," Bryan says.

Being a First doesn’t have to be about trumping the competition. It doesn’t even have to be about putting your footprint on untrodden ground. At its best, it’s simply a state of mind.

"Maybe there are places that other people have been to a thousand times, a million times—a dilapidated mosque, say, in the middle of India," says Gordon Janow. "But it’s early in the morning, and you’re the first one there, and as you walk in, you have that feeling of ’Wow!’ It’s the same as when you climb a mountain that hasn’t been climbed before. When you’re a traveler, there’s something thrilling about recreating that virgin experience, of being the first one there. Even if it’s only being the first one there that morning."

Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor

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