Saturday, October 29, 2011 3.00pm
By John Whitney in Bath, UK
Following on from his first major expedition – a record breaking round-the-world cycle – adventurer Mark Beaumont mixed things up a little for his second. The challenge – to cycle the length of the Americas and scale the highest mountain peak on each continent in the same climbing season – was something that had never been achieved before.
While Beaumont wasn’t attempting to break any speed records this time round, there was an urgency to reach the second mountain before winter set in. His experiences have been chronicled in this book and a BBC documentary of the same name. As engaging as the book is, watching the documentary is essential to understanding the hardships he went through.
Particularly on the bike leg, the book doesn’t quite get the message across about just how hard his challenge, which saw him ride up to 100 miles a day in often oppressive conditions, actually was. And it's only watching the documentary that you realise the scale: the endurance required to climb mountain pass after mountain pass while hauling 30kg of equipment; what severe dehydration does to a man; even the steps he had to take to ward off bears while he slept. It's all in the book; he just doesn't paint as vivid a picture as we see in the film.
The book does succeed in doing what all good travel books should: it gives you the urge to do it yourself. It's hard not to be impressed by Beaumont's wanderlust, his desire to take on challenges that many would think out of their reach. But while there’s no doubting Beaumont’s tenacity, it would serve the reader better if he revealed more of himself and talked about what motivates him to take on these challenges and what he goes through while on them. Maybe this reluctance says much about his personality, as someone who chooses to undertake expeditions on his own.
Beaumont spends so much time alone on his bike that whenever he encounters other people, he soon starts to crave the solitary nature of the cycle. Early on, he says that he wanted the expedition to be more about the people he encountered and less about simply riding fast, which makes it frustrating to see him repeatedly trying to justify to himself excursions away from bike, such as a night out at a Mexican street festival or bullfight.
Quite often we find him rueing not being on the bike, as if a night off exploring his surroundings is time wasted in his march towards Argentina. His desire to reach the start of the Aconcagua climb on time means the encounters he has with locals on the way down – often the best parts of the book – aren't what they could have been. The idea of slowing down and soaking up his environment obviously doesn't sit well with a man who made his name smashing a speed record.
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