Barth And Mount Idinen

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Pablo Edronkin

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Heinrich Barth entered into the world of exploration almost like a secondary character but after his first expedition he had become a consummated traveller, explorer and adventurer.

What happened to this scientist of German origin was quite uncommon because people usually don't become experts rapidly; it is very rare that someone could acquire the level of expertise required to attain the status of guru in any trade just in the first try, but that seems to be the case of Herrn Barth. However, this wasn't just because God played dice that day; instead, there are several reasons that explain Barth's performance as an explorer:

He endured a rather prolonged isolation from civilisation; his expedition literally disappeared from the map for about five years. Such a long exposure to the wilderness on a constant basis certainly played a role.

His academic and scientific background and education had prepared him intellectually to confront dangers yet not understood.

After the disappearance of the expedition leader, Barth was left in charge, giving him the opportunity to do things based on his own common sense, at his own pace.

He was undoubtedly naturally talented for the trade of exploration.

The exposure to survival situations and emergencies.

Particularly in the last case, Barth was able by coincidence or fate to learn hard lessons from the mistakes he made during the first stages of the expedition, while he was a newbie of sorts. Being intelligent, he was able to learn from experiences like his rather imprudent solo climb to Mount Idinen, where he got lost and survived by drinking his own blood. This, of course, has no value as a survival technique because haemorrhaging implies also dehydration. It just works as a placebo.

From his excursion to that mountain where - according to local lore - ghosts live, the German explorer returned alive thanks to the fact that he was rescued by some Bedouins when he had already abandoned himself to what seemed an inevitable faith. This fact is in itself commendable because at the time, in the desert many bands of thieves were roaming, waiting to take everything from defenceless people. This speaks very well about those anonymous Bedouins and of the expedition itself, which was already gaining a good image in the region. This expedition, led by James Richardson, had been sent in 1850 by a British Biblical Society to inquiry about slave trade, commercial routes across the desert and sub-Saharan cities.

As it happened in the case of other expeditions sponsored by religious organisations, this one led by Richardson did not commit premeditated cruel acts against the natives, and that had certainly an impact in the minds of locals accustomed to distrusts foreigners due to the high number of slave-trading that both Christian and Muslims traders incurred in for centuries. Form this first impression, Richardson's expedition had its way opened relatively peacefully, and despite the deaths of most of its members due to illness and exposure, Barth could in the end, complete the mission. Things could have been very different if they had adopted different criteria.

Nevertheless, Barth made a serious mistake when he tried to climb Idinen ion his own: He thought that no risks would be involved in the excursion, probably because Mount Idinen doesn't look like a particularly complicated climb. It looks more like a weekend project. However, no mountain is to be taken so lightly, and even less if it is located in uncharted lands. This is the kind of mistake made frequently even by expert mountaineers when confronted with uncharted peaks; more often than not, mountaineers are just accustomed to climb in ranges that are already known, charted and inhabited, like the Pyrenees or the Alps. Mountains located in faraway places, in uncharted territory or that are rather unknown or very seldom-visited poise an additional danger implicit in the fact that little is known about them and while general principles could be applied in broad terms, not necessarily everything that you know from experience can be applied in such cases.

Complexity or difficulty scales used enthusiastically by climbers to assess their skills don not usually take into account this fact and therefore, cannot be used lightly in the case of "new" mountains. This is perhaps the single, most significant difference between traditional mountain climbing and mountain exploration. The techniques might be the same, but things are not the same up there. Even in uncharted places located in well-known regions, or where the unknown territory is relatively small, the ignorance factor must be taken into account. We just have to remember places lime Mount Eiger, in the Swiss Alps, where tragedies did happened for this very reason, with a view to the beautiful and populated Grindelwald valley. Sedlmeyer and Mehringer perished frozen, and the whole expedition organised by Hinterstoisser, Angerer, Rainer and Kurz, all well-seasoned and expert climbers, died ultimately because they thought of the Eiger as just another mountain in the Alps and removed a rope that they should have left permanently.

They didn't know that they would have to return on their footprints because they couldn't go further following the route they planned - an accident was involved too -, and they didn't know that they would be unable to put the rope back in place again, so they had to try to go around and simply fell victims to another accident. Not knowing what lies ahead is precisely the ignorance factor, what makes both activities different.

But Barth learned from mistakes like his reckless visit to Mount Idinen; this is easily proven by the fact that he eventually became the only survivor of the whole expedition that took five years. Barth started in the expedition almost as an apprentice and had some problems with the expedition's leader due to the facts involved in having different personalities. The fact that Barth survived while his boss did not suggests that Barth's criteria was better and would have probably made a better expedition leader form the beginning. However, their sponsors - those financing the venture - would probably think that Barth was too young and inexperienced for such a role, especially considering that the commissioned chief already had some experience with trips to Africa.

What deserves a comment by itself is Barth's persistence despite all odds against the expedition and himself. Undoubtedly, this personality trait is behind all the successes of the venture, including the places he went into and explored, the collection of valuables and scientific material, the confection of the first precise charts and maps of Africa and even the fact that the expedition behaved very decently with local people. This is something that was not always observed during the period of exploration and conquest of Africa by the Europeans. In these two personality traits - persistence and moral decency - we can see two very important qualities of any true leader.

It is far easier to pretend to lead - I say this because if a leader doesn't hold those qualities he or she fells into a pantomime of leadership - by letting others do the heavy jobs or by acting cruelly when technology and firepower favours you. Leadership never relies on imposition but emulation; in fact, we cannot say that individuals like Tamerlan were leaders because they relied in terror and not the admiration of their people. Because of this, coercitive organisations never have true leaders but formal bosses: Tax and revenue agencies across the world base their work on the heavy hand of law, there is no emulation involved and so, their structures, both at the top as well as middle levels, never have true leaders.

It could be argued that a military unit or armed exploration expedition are coercitive organisations too and there have been great leaders in both cases, like Hernan Cortez and George Patton, but between these two and a truly coercitive entity - be it legal or not - there is a fundamental difference: The explorer and soldier often confront life-threats, while a bureaucrat doesn't. The leadership in a fighting unit comes from the need to lead men in battle, and to ask something as difficult as being ready to die requires leadership by example. Coercitive organisations like a tax agency only ask people to fulfil requirements by threat and there is no need to lead by example. This can be presented in a rosy legal way, of course, but the essence remains the same: "Do it, or else..." As we see, expeditions may count with respected leaders no matter whether they are ruthless or not. Such expeditions might even reach success, like Cortez did, but they will never attain glory..

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