I will admit to a little bit of proselytizing of late. In the run-up to the launch of the Falcon Heavy, I have been an ardent supporter of Elon Musk’s unique brand of exploration. It isn’t so much because I necessarily support all his principles–claims of union busting and chronic underpayment coming to mind–but I nonetheless feel his role is an important one. Musk dares to make things happen. He attacks problems with a sense of capitalistic purpose, raising companies that capture the public imagination and drawing sustaining revenues from consumers, VCs, and governments alike. In that way he is like most others in corporate-America, and were things to end right there his name would likely be indistinguishable from the CEOs of Ford or Boeing—two companies he seeks to upend. His companies are reasonably successful, although some wonder if he is doing too much and constructing a house of cards, especially with the delayed Model 3.
But this is not the Elon Musk I am here to talk about. I am here to talk about the man who spends his time digging up the Space-X parking lot with tunnel-boring equipment. The man who markets a short-throw flamethrower as a viable mass-market product. The man who gets rocket scientists to agree to strap his cherry-red roadster complete with “driver” to the top of the largest currently operating launch vehicle. There is a wildness in him that cannot be ignored. A strange ethos that continues to push things forward in a time when he could probably make a more comfortable living doing much more mundane things. His profits are more easily viewed as a massive means to an end goal of the human race envisioned in some retro-future. And the more he succeeds the more seriously I think we have to take his more outlandish claims, like the prospect of a human colony on the red planet. And with that reality, I arrived at the title of this piece: will there be trad climbing on Mars?
Greg Rakozy: Sir Edmund Hillary may have topped the highest peak on Earth,
but who will reach the highest in the solar system first?
Everyone is so focused on the logistics of Martian colonization and with good reason—Mars is not a great place to be if you value unassisted breathing, or having a steady food supply, or being protected from solar radiation… These are all things that need to be dealt with if humanity wants to live on Mars permanently, but there are people doing the dealing and many of them are as pathological about their dream as Musk. That last line is key to understanding where we are headed. Musk and his gaggle are not cut from the same cloth as many other corporate space ventures. They are the because it’s there types, the do it because we can and because we feel we must types of people. They like living on the ragged-edge and pushing passionately forward. The people they will draw in will be of like mind. They will be the Earharts, and the Shackletons, the Sir Edmund Hillarys and Fred Beckeys. They will take to the stars and traverse the red planet like we can only imagine now.
They will of course face struggles and overcome obstacles that we can barely speculate about, but once they have established the materials they need to sustain life things will likely settle into a gentle rhythm. These pioneers are not ones for a rhythm, though. As soon as they are afforded the time to imagine, the next dream will be within reach. For those interested in exploration, Mars does not offer seas or rivers, but it does offer beautifully sculpted canyons and “canals” that would be the dream of any crag-climber. Couple that with the prospect of scaling the largest volcano in the solar system, and we have something for everyone from the technical purist on the slot canyons, to the most ardent mountaineers.
So now, to answer the original question. Will there someday be the muted sound of carbon and aluminum cams rattling against hard-shelled spacesuit? Will ice-axes and crampons be standard baggage for those loading up for adventure-treks to Mars? Five or ten years ago, the thought would have never crossed my mind. But now, I can’t see these things not happening. If humanity is going to make it off this pale-blue dot, it is unequivocally going to be led by the adventurers, the explorers, and the dirt-bags.