An Unknown Hero
The Guardian, May 21st, 2002
Dave Mill, the supposedly unaided adventurer rescued from an ice floe, should take a lesson in humility
He should be a hero. He risked his life in the world's most inhospitable landscape. His bravery was extraordinary, yet he did what he had to do for no motive other than saving the life of a total stranger. It was an utterly selfless, remarkably courageous act. And we have no idea who he is. The pilot who landed a small ski-plane on a 320-metre ice floe last weekend, 300km from the North Pole, to pick up the stranded adventurer Dave Mill, has not been named.
It is the 34-year-old Scotsman Mill - making his third attempt to be the first man to go solo and "unaided" from Canada to the North Pole - who has been heralded as the hero of this pathetic tale of failure. Marooned many miles from solid land, Mill emailed a digital photo of a possible landing site to a rescue team in Canada. Mill's spokesman neatly twisted the events leading up to his rescue, making it clear where credit should lie. "The rescue was a first as normally the pilot has to fly by to take a look at the ground and establish whether it is safe to land," he said. "But he was able to accept the mission based on the quality of the images Dave emailed from his mobile."
So it was Mill's ingenuity and resourcefulness in knowing how to use a mobile phone that saved the day! No mention of the pilot's bravery in accepting the challenge. Our action man Mill is the only hero allowed to place his footprint on this treacherous arctic landscape.
The same spokesman called Mill's fiasco a "dangerous expedition". But dangerous for whom? Although the ex-soldier claimed he was "unaided", the definition of what counts as aid is sorely stretched.
When his two camping stoves broke five days into his journey, he called up a supply plane to fly out replacements, as if ordering a home delivery from Sainsbury's. A satellite system pinpointed his position for his back-up team at all times.
With the help of his trusty mobile phone company, who sponsored his trek, he filed stories to national newspapers from 85 degrees north. Pop star David Gray gave him a morale-boosting call. (I wonder if he had Please Forgive Me as his ring tone?) And all in the knowledge that if anything did go really, really wrong, there were always men like the nameless brave pilot to bail him out.
But bravery is an attribute still firmly rooted in Victorian ideals. Our image of a hero has changed little since the 19th-century explorers macheted fresh paths through tropical jungles and trekked across vast deserts. Unsurprisingly, Mill describes himself as one of the last "true" explorers. "As I walk, I can feel what Shackleton felt and what Scott must have experienced," he says on his website, updated daily from the Arctic Circle.
The essential elements for inclusion in this gallery of heroes are: physical daring and prowess; a sense of doing it alone (back-up teams and native assistants don't count); a claim to be conquering new territory in a new way (by adding "unaided", solo, backwards or any other such adjective before the endeavour if need be); and a large dose of testosterone. (Female heroes, such as Ellen Macarthur the 5ft 2in yachtswoman, are only heroes for overcoming their physical disadvantages.) Mill contrives to conform to all these conditions, even informing us that he's being stalked by a polar bear, a strange claim as polar bears do not stalk humans as prey.
There is one further essential element to heroism: exclusivity. Heroes are other than you and me. Heroism is not something we could raise ourselves to, ever. Mill's friend and fellow hero Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes has talked about how men such as he and Dave are made from different stuff. Not better, he insists, just different. They are born to be heroes. We are not.
But it is actually we ordinary mortals who are the most heroic. As many a recent disaster has proved, bravery and heroism are not attributes you are born with, but rise to in a particular situation. From September 11 to the Potters Bar rail crash, we hear stories of ordinary people who respond extraordinarily. There is nothing of the stunt about these actions. No one who acted heroically did so by choice, but because they had no choice. Real heroes are only heroes because they have to be.
Less than 48 hours before his rescue, Mill, with no sense of irony, said on his satellite phone: "As an unaided, unsupported explorer, I have no one to help me. I am on my own." He described his trip as being all about "self-reliance". Yet, irony upon irony, it's Mill's arrogance in attempting to prove himself a hero that has created another one.
Mill is entitled to attempt to do any absurd journey he likes, with as many hi-tech props as he requires. But he is not entitled to expect us to respond, namelessly and with no reward, when he gets himself into trouble. After all, unlike him, we weren't born to be heroes.
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