Friday, 18 December 2009

Exploration books of the decade

‘Tis the season for making lists. December is a time when newspapers fill their pages with end of year reviews, lists of celebrity divorces and outrageous quotes, and all the best films, books, CDs etc. This year the Guardian/Observer Research & Information team has been extra busy compiling end of the decade lists.

With this is in mind I've put together a list of a few of the books from the past decade that have left some sort of impression.

by Caroline Alexander
OK, so this came out at the end of 1999 but it made an impact in 2000. In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on an audacious expedition to cross the Antarctic by foot. However, his ship, The Endurance, became frozen in pack ice and so Shackleton and his crew spent months drifting across the icy continent. When supplies ran low and tensions high, a small group set sail in one of the ship's lifeboats in search of rescue. After crossing 800 miles of the South Atlantic, the world's most tempestuous stretch of ocean, they finally reached the island of South Georgia. Help was near but only after Shackleton and two colleagues crossed over the island's uncharted mountains.

It is one of the 20th Century's greatest feats of endurance and while the story has been told many times, Caroline Alexander’s expert recounting of it, along with her intimate portraits of the characters, brings the events to life. It is of course Frank Hurley’s brilliant photographs, combined with her words that make this such an inspiring book.

by Joe Simpson
With the death of a close friend, Joe Simpson decides to turn his back on climbing big mountains - that is after he has done one last big one, the North Face of the Eiger. The Touching the Void author brilliantly splices his own experience with the stories and legends of the 'Mordwand', along with meditations on the deaths of friends and heroes. Above all though, he is a master at conveying the fear and exhilaration of actually climbing. At the beginning of the route you sense the joy of moving well and the thought that Simpson and his climbing partner might actually succeed.

This soon disappears when - halfway up the north face - they are hit by a thunderstorm. During the deluge, Simpson hears a strange, muffled sound: only later does he discover that this was the noise of the two climbers above him falling to their deaths. The couple retreat and perhaps for the first time he feels no sense of failure. He recognises, however, that the mountains will continue to exert their siren call: "There is about the mountain the beckoning silence of great height."

The book awakened an interest in the Eiger and on finishing it I re-read Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider. A few years later I also enjoyed John Harlin’s The Eiger Obsession, especially the sections about his father, who died while attempting the North Face Direct in 1966. For a taste of the Beckoning Silence see John Crace's digested read.

by Jim Perrin
The 'warts and all' biography of Don Whillans, one of Britain's greatest, if most controversial climbers. As Jim Perrin puts it in the introduction "This is a tale of squandered talent, and a life that was to far too great an extent soured by resentment." It was a life though that saw great achievements on rock, and, even if Whillans’s high altitude expeditions often ended in failure, friend and foe acknowledged his brilliance - as well as being a firm hand in dangerous situations.

The Villain is a great book in part because it is a history of British climbing over the past 50 years. But Perrin's meticulous research (not to mention detailed footnotes), knowledge of the subject plus sublime writing ensures that it sets new standards in biography writing.

by Nando Parrado
The story of how a team of Uruguayan rugby players survived a plane crash in the remote snowy peaks of the Andes, in October 1972, is well know. Piers Paul Read's Alive is the definitive book about the ordeal but Nando Parrado's first person account more than complements it. Even though I knew what happened and how, of course, the team survived, it was - cliche coming – very hard to put down. The tale made it into Those Who Dared in part because of the cannibalism, but more because of Parrado's amazing climb over an Andean peak to seek rescue.

by Geoff Powter
Geoff Powter, a practicising clinical psychologist, examines the lives and motivations of 11 would be heroes using previously unpublished evidence. The list includes Robert Falcon Scott, Donald Crowhurst, and John Franklin, as well as lesser known figures.

Powter points out that throughout history, literature has painted its greatest adventure heroes ‘not as invincible heroes, but as flawed souls redeemed by the hardship of their passage’. The troubled can be ‘drawn by the promise of heroics, redemption and acclaim’. Most interesting are the chapters on Aleister Crowley, the occultist and rather good climber, and Maurice Wilson, an Englishman who, in 1934 , died trying to climb Everest on his own.

by Michael Kodas
While Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air shed light on the darker side of the Everest industry, High Crimes is a fully blown expose. In Michael Kodas's view the slopes of the mountain are rife with theft and drug use while base camp is like a lawless wild-west town complete with prostitutes. High up on the mountain incompetent guides ignore dying climbers so eager are they to plant their flags on the summit.

High Crimes is by far the most depressing book I've ever read about mountaineering. I didn‘t particularly enjoy it, but acknowledge that Kodas’s account acts as a counterbalance to many of the triumphalist tomes of the genre.

by Nicholas Murray
Whether they were going for fame, adventure, religious reasons, or to sample foreign brothels, countless travellers used the British Empire as the reason for exploring the globe. Drawing on their own unique and colourful accounts, Nicholas Murray presents the world as seen through Victorian eyes.

All the big names of the era - Livingstone, Stanley, Burton etc - are included but it's the lesser known figures who make this book such a delight. It also includes a number of female explorers. A highly entertaining read that provided a number of suggestions for Those Who Dared.

I also enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. Finally, Ronald Turnbull’s The Book of the Bivvy, a pocket-sized guide that could possibly stand you in good stead if ever forced to survive in the open. Oh, and, as I’ve mentioned before, The Fall is a fine novel.

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