The Adventure

5 Great Adventure Books

Posted by Jane Carswell on Thu, Oct 14, 2010

By Adventure Travelperson

These are some of the adventure books that really gave me a kick at one time or another. I’m listing them pretty much off the top of my head. Maybe starting a conversation: I’m sure The Adventure’s worldwide readership will have many such lists. I’d like to see them. Fellow bloggers Topher Donahue and Paul Lazarski, I’m sure you guys have some good ones.

Anapurna cover1)  “Annapurna” by Maurice Herzog. Back in the very early 60s there wasn’t a lot of mountaineering literature available, at least for this mountain-besotted youth (mountaineering, in America at least, was considered a little loony). But when I chanced across “Annapurna,” I was enraptured. Herzog broke from the stiff-upper lip Anglo-Saxon fashion in his description of his 1950 French expedition’s triumph, the first ascent of an 8,000 meter peak. The Nepal Himalaya was so wonderfully unexplored by the outside world that it took the expedition weeks to figure out that Annapurna wasn’t nearby Dhaulagiri. Herzog’s account of his descent of the mountain and the long return to France, during which he lost most of his digits to frostbite, is harrowing. (Years ago I met Herzog in Kathmandu. “Oh, Monsieur Herzog,” I gushed, grasping his stumpy hands--and tearing him away from a masterful flirtation with a comely young lady. “You are a childhood hero of mine!” “Childhood ‘ero,” he said, “Oooh, la, la.”)

starlight and storm2)  “Starlight and Storm” by Gaston Rebuffat is an account of this great Chamonix guide’s early post-war ascents of the classic Alpine north faces: the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses, the Piz Badile, the Drus, the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, and, of course, the Eiger. A member of the French Annapurna expedition, Rebuffat, like Herzog, didn’t mind waxing a little poetic and emotional when describing his climbs. He loved mountains deeply and intelligently. This is a book to be cherished in this day of commercialized, commodified climbing. (I always love to meet up with CMH mountain guides who were similarly inspired by Rebuffat, guys who know, and have climbed, the undersung Piz Badile and the Eiger, etc.)

3)  “Shackleton” by Roland Huntford. A brainy and exemplary biography of the tough-as-granite explorer by a guy, Huntford, who was largely responsible for deflating Robert Falcon Scott’s gasbaggy reputation (in “Scott and Amudsen,” retitled “The Last Place on Earth” in America). Shackleton is probably most famous for getting all of his men home safely after what is possibly the greatest survival epic in exploration history. The classic account of the amazing year-and-a-half drama of the 1914-16 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is Alfred Lansing’s 1959 book “Endurance,” still very worthwhile. But I think Huntford’s account, the centerpiece of this biography, benefits from new, in-depth scholarship and a somewhat more modern sensibility, allowing for greater frankness. In any case, if you’ve never read the story of Shackleton’s leadership and bravery, culminating in his incredible 15-day open boat voyage across the frigid, insanely unruly Scotia Sea to mountainous, glaciated South Georgia Island, and his desperate traverse of the island to a whaling station where he was able to mount a rescue of his mates back on ultra-desolate Elephant Island...well: you really must. (Last year I realized a decades-old dream by sailing down to absolutely knock-down gorgeous South Georgia and the equally stunning Antarctic Peninsula. Members of my party re-created the Shackleton traverse of the island under the leadership of 11-time Everest summiter Dave Hahn and Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund’s very accomplished son. All involved were Shackleton admirers before following in his footsteps. They became lifelong devotees after their modern-equipment-aided crossing.)

Everest The West Ridge4)  “Everest: The West Ridge” by Tom Hornbein. This account of the 1963 American Everest Expedition, the fourth successful climb of the great mountain, is an enduring classic of mountaineering literature. (By the way, the American expedition was preceded to the summit  by the British in 1953, by the Swiss in 1956, and--it’s now pretty much accepted--the Chinese, on the North Face, in 1960). Anyway, Hornbein’s account of his and Wili Unsoeld’s heroic climb of the previously unexplored West Ridge, and their traverse of the mountain, an almost equally noble feat, is beautifully and sensitively written, frank about motives and rivalries and organizational difficulties, but, in the end, big-hearted and unforgettable. (The original, large format Sierra Club Books edition included a host of gorgeous pictures of the expedition, making “Everest the West Ridge” a treasure to be passed down to the generations.)

Complete book of marvels5) “The Complete Book of Marvels” by Richard Halliburton. Now all but forgotten, Halliburton was a sensation in the 1930s, the author of book after book of adventuresome, imaginative, and publicity-generating travels all over the world (he swam the Panama Canal, crossed the Alps on an elephant like Hannibal, and swam the Hellespont like Byron, in addition to many slightly less splashy exploits). I include his collected “Book of Marvels” here because it was so seminal to my life of travel. I came across it at age nine and spent long and intent hours gazing at its old black and white photos, reading Halliburton’s simple, personal, uncondescendingly vigorous prose. He was a guy who was unafraid of enthusiasm. One of those grainy black and whites was a picture of Tibet’s Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lamas. (He, like just about everyone else, couldn’t visit Tibet, but he wrote intelligently about it and of his desire to go there). That picture sent me into a long happy spiral of fascination for Tibet, and a fierce desire to visit it.  And when I did, 25 years later (on the first of 20-odd trips, I’m exalted to say), I tipped my hat to the great inspirer, Richard Halliburton.

What about you?  What great reads have inspired you?  I hope that you will share them here.

Tags: Adventure Travel, For Fun