Steve Fossett, the history-making balloonist, couldn't have met George Mallory. Mallory was a mountaineer of 80 years ago. Everest was his dominion and obsession. He came from the groves of academia in England and wrote and thought poetically.
Fossett is a pragmatic and relentless daredevil from the stock brokerages of Chicago. He is a smart and cool millionaire, an oceangoing adventurer with an astounding résumé that puts him close to Krypton, which gave the world the fictional Superman. If anything, Fossett trumps Superman. He balloons, sails, flies, races by dogsled and triathlon, climbs, and more. He sets records, ignores gravity, and looks inexhaustible. And today Steve Fossett is the toast of television for a few hours.
Mallory never achieved a shred of that kind of fame. And yet across the decades today, the two are bound together in spirit by the paradox of their compulsion. There is first the adrenaline surge that propels the risk-takers into new worlds and dicey winds of high adventure. But with that comes the humility they inevitably must feel facing the unknown of wild nature.
Temperamentally, these two could not have been less alike.
Yet today, with his globe-circling balloon having triumphantly recrossed its starting line over Western Australia, the 58-year-old American businessman might well remember the personal mantra spoken by the English climber nearly a century ago when he stepped onto the summit of a high peak in the Alps.
"Have we vanquished an enemy?" he asked, meaning the wind, the heights and the power of nature.
"None but ourselves."
And what are those internal demons that goad the Fossetts and the Mallorys and Shackletons, the unapologetic roamers and pathfinders of the ice fields and the stratosphere? Fossett would not define his drives that way. He is a hardheaded calculator who invites himself into a constant environment of danger. Mallory was a romanticist. What Mallory called the enemy-within-us probably would be identified by today's psychologist as ego, competitive fire and the single-minded will to go where no one has gone, to find what no one has found, to be first, to be highest.
It's what brought Fossett around the world to Australia. So is it always a menace, this ego, this willingness to risk death for a summit or a place in history. No, of course not. It can ignite discovery and lift human beings to a place they once thought beyond them. It can change history, as Columbus did, the Wright Brothers and the astronauts. But Mallory knew that uncurbed ego and obsession can consume the seeker. So the psychologist today would see them not so much as enemies to be vanquished as hungers to be appeased. In the end, they consumed Mallory. He died in a fall a thousand feet below the summit of Everest.
But Fossett completed his 14-day journey around the world, and for a few days at least the world can offer congratulations. For what? Aren't we getting weary of self-constructed heroes in the aftermath of the authentic heroism of Sept. 11? The answer is that there still is a part of us that admires and envies the Steve Fossetts. Why? Because there are landmarks both big and trivial in humanity's endless quest to find something or reach something that once seemed unattainable: the poles of the Earth, the ocean floor, Everest.
And then the moon.
What makes Fossett a little different is the absence of melodramatic language or poses in how he pursues his breathless hunt for mind-bending new experience. Money (plus energy and toughness) lets him go where he wants. So PBS's NOVA asked him not long ago what kind of pleasure he gets from his solo flights in thin air. "I'm not doing it for pleasure," he said. "This is an endeavor. It's something that hasn't been done. It's an opportunity to earn a place in aviation history." He was reminded that he'd also climbed the highest mountains on six of the seven continents. So why not try Everest? "No, that's off my list.... I was never comfortable with the risk of climbing in the Himalayas, or the amount of time in idleness that is involved in the Everest expedition."
That probably won't make it to Bartlett's Familiar quotations. But it's candid enough and offers a reasonable closeup of the cerebral achiever, a man who faced peril hundreds of time without being overwhelmed by the bravery of it. There's not always a clean line between stunts (barreling over Niagara Falls) and a legitimate breakthrough in the search for new ultimates for the venturesome spirit. But the public usually knows genuine trailblazing when it sees it, something monumental in human experience. And it will respond with its applause and even its adulation, from Charles Lindbergh's Atlantic flight to Neil Armstrong's giant step.
And when those next steps are made, there is always a question about what's left. Haven't we devoured most of the horizons the oceans, mountains, the speed of sound, Babe Ruth's records, all of that? Not really. Somebody is going to swim around the world. What about Mars?
There will always be something, someplace for the restless spirit that wants to escape the herd, to be unique, to separate from the multitudes who can enjoy adventure and competition for their own sake without worrying about being immortal. These are people who want only a few borrowed hours when their spirits can race with the wind and reach for the sun. But for Fossett, matching nerve, wit, and muscle against the raw and capricious force of nature never ends. Guts and glory. It's partly the risk, which nurtures adventure and sometimes destroys it.
Jim Klobuchar has been a mountain climber, balloonist, pilot, and nominee for NASA's now-aborted journalist-in-space project.