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Old 21st Jan 2018, 10:42   #1
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Default Books of exploration and adventure

I am a profoundly cowardly, comfort-loving chap who enjoys very much reading about people venturing into stupidly dangerous situations and (often) perishing miserably.

I am curious to know if others share this perversion.

I would like to say it is my parents' fault. growing up in a TV-less house (it was Hell in the 80s, I tell you!) I read, and listened to books on tape. Two of my favourite books on tape were the story of Everest, and an abridgement of Scott's Antarctic diary. Both of which contained many examples of people venturing into stupidly dangerous situations and perishing miserably.

These days, my interests are more focused on the North West Passage. This arose from - oddly, if you don't know me - reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, many moons ago, and following up a passing reference to the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. You know the one where they ventured into the frozen archipelago of Hell north of Canada, got stuck in the ice for years, abandoned their ships in a doomed effort to trek to safety, and perished miserably, but not without resorting to cannibalism first.

This thread is for recommendation and discussion of books of that sort. They don't need to feature icy horror, but it generally helps.

Here are some recommendations from my reading. Happy to answer questions / discuss further.
  1. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. Obvious selection, but a terrific read of a very bad day on a very big hill. A grim and tonic warning about commercialised climbing.
  2. The Man Who Ate His Boots, by Anthony Brandt. A good general history of the efforts to find the North West Passage. The title refers to Franklin's first expedition. First? Yeah, he went back for more. Twice. The third time, he didn't make it back, and neither did any of the 128 men who accompanied him.
  3. The Climb Up To Hell, by Jack Ohlsen. Attempts to climb the absurdly dangerous and vindictive North Face of the Eiger. Which is German for ogre. With good reason.
  4. Buried in the Sky, by by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan. The 2008 K2 disaster, when 11 climbers died. Focuses on the efforts of the sherpas to get their clients to the top, and then save them and themselves as disaster unfolds.

I'm aware there are plenty of modern books about Scott and Shackleton, Nansen and Amundsen and the like.

Has anyone read 'em and care to comment?

Last edited by lurgee; 31st Jan 2018 at 12:13.
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Old 21st Jan 2018, 22:48   #2
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Default Re: Books of exploration and adventure

"Books of exploration and misadventure", surely?

I don't think I have any examples to share, but I'll look forward to seeing what appears here.
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Old 21st Jan 2018, 23:37   #3
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Default Re: Books of exploration and adventure

The reason I started this thread is because I have just finished reading Glyn Williams's Voyages of Delusion. Yes, it is a Northwest Passage book.

Voyages of Delusion has a curious conceit. Most NWP books focus their attention on the efforts to negotiate the Hellish archipelago of Islands north of Canada - where Franklin and his expedition came to grief. While a combination of European 19th century arrogance, unpreparedness and sheer bad luck meant the passage was not successfully sailed until 1906, by Amundsen (who appears to have made thwarting British sense of entitlement his life's work) at least they were looking in the right place.

In this book Williams - very much an expert voice on the NWP - concentrates on the earlier efforts of the 18th century, where they were striving to find a passage in all the wrong places - Hudson's Bay and the through the North Western coast of what is now Canada and the USA, but was then terra incognita to Europeans.

So, basically, it's a book about the completely wrong efforts, the ones which had no chance of success, because there wasn't a passage to be found. It's main theme is the conflict between the 'theoretical' geographers, who argued there had to be a passage somewhere, and practical navigators who actually went and looked at stuff and said there wasn't anything there. Oddly, the efforts of the latter only feed the delusions of the former. Every time an explorer came back with a chart which contained even a hint of ambiguity - a gap in the coast, a river mouth unexplored, they insisted that there - there - was the entrance to the North West Passage. Voyages of Delusion indeed!

As an aside, it is worth noting that deluded efforts to seek a North West Passage didn't stop at the end of the 18th century. Even the most optimistic theoretical geographer had to admit the non-existence of a passage through the continent. But then their their focus shifted to the north, with attempts to sail round North America rather than through it. These were just as deluded in their own way, as the Powers That Be continued to justify the suffering and expense by claiming it would provide a valuable trade route - long after it became apparent to anyone that (without the helping hand of anthropogenic global warming) the ice bound Polar Sea could never consistently be traversed. But those misadventures are detailed in other books, including Williams's Polar Labyrinth.

Voyages of Delusion is a dry, detailed book - Williams is not a frothy writer - and its focus on efforts doomed to failure make it a poor place to begin an interest in Polar misadventure. But it does emphasis the limited technology of these pioneers - the tiny ships, the primitive mapping, the length of voyages needed just to get to where you wanted to explore (where you might only have a window of a few weeks for actual exploration, if you were lucky); and it highlights the work of several important figures of the 18th century, who laboriously probed every inlet and sound in the icy Hell of Hudson bay, and along the convoluted west coast of North America, in search of something that wasn't there.
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Old 29th Jan 2018, 11:11   #4
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Default Re: Books of exploration and adventure

Though I don't read books of exploration and real life derring-do I realised, after reading this, that I read Fortian Times magazine for similar reasons. It's chock full of tales of hopelessly misguided optimism (often with tragic, easily foreseeable results) and sheer bloody mindedness in the face of all the evidence - or lack of it as the case maybe. It's fascinating seeing people construct complex theories on the flimsiest of foundations and then take the lack of ANY supporting evidence as incontrovertible proof.

I bought a huge pile of back issues on eBay recently, for pennies, and have to drag myself away from them. It's compulsive, reading about the amazing self-deception and sheer stupidity of other people. And very reassuring. And sometimes I get an idea for a comic out of it:
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Old 10th Feb 2018, 22:30   #5
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I hadn't heard of this chap before, but he absolutely deserves an honorable mention for misguided adventure. The link is to a not-too-bad account of attempts to film his life in - of all places - The New Statesman.

Donald Crowhurst was not the most inexperienced competitor to enter the Golden Globe race (that accolade must go to Chay Blyth, whod never handled a yacht before and had to be towed out of the harbour because he hadnt worked out how to steer). But he was still very much a weekend sailor, more used to pottering along the Devon coastline than rounding the Horn. He set sail on the very last day permitted by the rules of the race. His self-designed trimaran the Teignmouth Electron was hopelessly ill-prepared: the pioneering computerised steering system wasnt ready, and the hull was far too vulnerable to leaks. Crowhurst had also fallen into the clutches of a ruthless publicity agent who was hyping up his story beyond all realistic expectations, and had placed himself at the mercy of an unscrupulous sponsor, signing a monstrous deal that stated that if he did not complete the nine-month race he would have to give all the money back and face certain financial ruin.

He had only been at sea a few weeks, and was inching his way down the West African coast, when he had to face up to the fact that his vessel was not seaworthy and he would die if he tried to take it into the roaring forties that winter. He decided instead to fake his log books, lie dormant in mid-ocean for a few months, then tuck in behind the other racers as they headed north back home through the Atlantic. He would be seen to have won an honourable third or fourth place, dignity would be saved, and he would be able to keep the sponsorship money.

Disastrously, all but one of the other racers dropped out and Crowhurst became a cert to win the prize for fastest sailor. He knew that under the close scrutiny that would result, his logbooks would be exposed for the forgeries they were. Weighed down by this dilemma, and suffering from months of intense confinement and solitude, he underwent a mental disintegration and finally we must assume stepped off the edge of his boat. The Teignmouth Electron was found drifting, unmanned, a few weeks later; he was never seen again.
I have just Kobo'd The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall.

This sad story connects two more of my Favourite Things In Literature, isolation and the sudden emergence of madness. My favourite novel is Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, and my favourite part of that is the fate of the luckless Decoud, abandoned on an island, eventually also vanishing into the depths of the ocean. When I was a callow youth, I didn't liek it - I thought it was absurd that Decoud could lose his grasp of reality over the course of a few days. Now I'm not so sure I could cling on that long.
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