Friday, 29 January 2010

Freefalling at the speed of sound

Austrian base jumper Felix Baumgartner will attempt to become the first person to break the speed of sound in freefall this year, and in doing so smash a nearly 50-year old record. In a project called 'Red Bull Stratos' he will undertake a balloon flight up to 120,000 feet and then leap out in a bid to be the first human being to fall at supersonic speeds, before parachuting down to earth.

The current record is held by US Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger who in August 1960 stepped out of a balloon at the height of 102,800 feet (19 miles) over the New Mexico Desert, and fell for four and half minutes of speeds up to 614 miles per hour. He set records for the fastest freefall, longest freefall, the highest parachute jump and the highest manned balloon flight. Inscribed in the door of his gondola were the words "This is the biggest step in world." Kittinger then went on to serve in Vietnam where he was shot down an spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the notorious 'Hanoi Hilton' prison.

Baumgartner will be trying to break three of the 50-year old records, aiming to fall at a speed of 700 miles per hour. A detailed analysis of the 'space dive' can be found in the recent issue of New Scientist.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Stairway to Mars

It is time to turn astronauts into true explorers again, with Mars as the goal. That's Michael Benson's argument in a recent New York Times opinion piece. Benson is the author of Far Out: A Space-time Chronicle.

The search for Amundsen

The Winter 2009/2010 issue of the Explorers Journal, the official quarterly of the The Explorers Club, is a bipolar special. Features include a travel piece on sailing the 90 degrees North in a Russian nuclear icebreaker and exploring Antarctica by kayak.

In the news section I spotted an item about a Norwegian Navy vessel heading to the Barents Sea where they will scour an area of the seabed in search of the missing seaplane of polar legend Roald Amundsen. The Norwegian explorer, the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage and the first to reach the South Pole, disappeared in 1928 while trying to rescue Umberto Nobile, an Italian who had flown to the pole in the airship Italia and crash landed on the ice on the way back.

Despite having fallen out with Nobile after a 1926 flight over the pole, two years later Amundsen offered to go and look for him. On June 18 1928 at around 4.00 PM, he took off with a crew of six in a state of the art twin-engine Latham 47. Three hours later the plane transmitted what were to be its final signals. Nobile and his crew were rescued on June 22.

Last August, a team led by New Zealand explorer Rob McCallum returned from a two week search for the aircraft empty handed. Lots of useful information can be found at Search For Amundsen.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Dive to Deepest Point On Earth

Fifty years ago this week, two explorers made made the first descent of a vessel, manned or unmanned, to the deepest point of any ocean - a place where no one had been before, nor has been since.

On January 23 1960, Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and US Navy Officer, Don Walsh travelled 11km down to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench of the Pacific Ocean in the Trieste, a specially designed deep sea diving vessel.

The expedition proved that life can survive in the extreme depths, with the hydronauts, seeing "weird white fish at the bottom," (Observer, January 24 1960.) This discovery was an important argument against the dumping of nuclear waste in ocean trenches.

A Japanese robotic craft, Kaiko, reached the bottom of Challenger Deep in 1995, and another visitor, Nereus, a remotely operated hybrid, touched down on May 31, 2009. Trieste's record may never be broken though due to the fear of a craft imploding. Those who have tried to repeat the amazing record all turned back at the 7.9km mark.

Read more about the trip on and The Explorers Journal.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Reinhold Messner and Nanga Parbat

When the frozen remains of Gunther Messner, the lost brother of Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, were discovered on a Himalayan peak in August 2005, a decades old mystery appeared to have been solved. However, as the Guardian reports, Nanga Parbat, a new film about the ill-fated expedition, has prompted fellow climbers to attack as "false" the version of events being portrayed on the screen. This, they say, only tells Messner's side of the story.

Ever since the expedition to climb the mountain in 1970, rumours persisted that Messner had abandoned his younger brother to die, as he continued to the top alone. The man, often described as the greatest mountaineer in history, always maintained that Guther died in an avalanche. The discovery of the body, and confirmation through DNA testing in October 2005, finally proved that Messner had been telling the truth.

See Nanga Parbat trailers here and here.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Burke and Wills expedition

The Melbourne Age recently reported that an expedition is to retrace the steps of explorers Burke and Will,150 years after the ill-fated pair made the first traverse of Australia from south to north.

In 1860, Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills were part of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, a large, and well-equipped party, that aimed to complete the journey from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and return safely after making scientific observations. Instead, it was a shambolic affair that saw the death of eight of its members including Burke, the leader, and Wills its navigator.

Incompetence, impatience and mismanagement are just some of the words that have been used to describe why the expedition was such a disaster. Ignorance is another. Rather than use the knowledge and help offered by Aborigines, the expedition, as Jonathan King writes in the Age, shot at "the blacks" and
Wills described the tribes as "mean-spirited and contemptible in every respect."

2010 expedition, which sets out in August,has an environmental objective with plans to carry out an audit of such matters as drought-induced soil erosion and feral animals. A century and a half after the orginal trek, the leaders will be seeking the advice and help of Aboriginal people and tribal elders are planning to welcome the entourage.

Despite it being a much celebrated catalogue of disasters, the
Royal Society of Victoria, which is organising the commemoration, hopes to remind people of the
expedition's achievements in exploration and scientific discovery, and the opening up of a path which many others would soon follow.

The Guardian reported the fate of the expedition on January 14 1862 (reprinted from the Sydney Morning Herald).

More information about Burke and Wills here.

Space exploration

What sort of human space exploration will we see in the next decade? A bold approach that considers exploration as people planting flags on places, or unmanned voyages? A recent essay in USA Today looks at these questions - plenty of comment too. See here for the official NASA vision of the future.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Peter Boardman expedition to Afghanistan

Adam Curtis, a documentary maker, is researching the history of the west's relationship to Afghanistan over the past 200 years. His notes and observations can be seen on the Adam Curtis blog and it makes for fascinating reading and viewing.

In Part One - 1971, he describes how, in that year, the BBC sent a film crew to Kabul to recreate the first great military disaster of the British Empire - the retreat from the city in 1841. As an aside, Curtis mentions that:

"As the BBC were filming a group of students from Nottingham University drove past. They were a group of mountaineers who were on their way to their first expedition outside Europe. They were going to climb a peak in the Hindu Kush called Koh-i-Khaaik. Their leader was called Peter Boardman. He would become one of the world's most famous climbers, but this particular trip was going to go terribly wrong. In 1977 Boardman recorded a description to camera of what happened both literally, and inside his own mind during his terrifying ordeal."

The film can be found at the bottom of Part one. It may only last 13 minutes but Boardman's story of the expedition is a powerful bit of television. He vividly describes just what it is like to be stuck on a high-altitude climb and realising that you're at the point of no return - reversing is out of the question so the only hope of getting off the mountain alive is to carry on climbing to the top.

Singlehanded across the Atlantic

Saturday's Daily Mail featured a story about Roz Savage who singlehandedly rowed across the Atlantic in 2006 and is now attempting to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific. More information on her website.

Rowing across the Atlantic features in Those Who Dared, including the 1966 voyage of Chay Blyth and John Ridgway. My favourite story of adventurous crossings of the ocean though is that Alain Bombard who in 1952 undertook a single-handed sail-crossing from east to west in an inflatable dingy. His aim was to prove that a human being can survive for weeks if not months by drinking seawater and juice pressed from the flesh of fish.

Sixty-five days after leaving the Canary Islands he landed on a beach in Barbados. He was emaciated and anaemic but had proved that his body could stand up to a diet of raw fish and plankton, although he very nearly make it. Read more about his remarkable journey and life here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Camping in style

Travelling into work this morning, I caught sight of this picture in someone's Metro, a daily freesheet. At first glance I thought it was something about a great adventurer, but it's actually illustrating a story entitled Get back to basics, colonial-style - a piece about a holiday firm that recreates the living quarters of the Victorian age of exploration. Somewhere in the deepest New Forest or the Scottish Borders you can pretend you're "in a lodge on the African savannah," says the publicity. With its bathing tent and plumbed-in sink I thought this was all modern luxury - until I read the following Guardian article from July 1922:

(click to enlarge)

Monday, 11 January 2010

Colonel Percy Fawcett

Last week's story in the Guardian about the discovery of a lost city in the Amazon jungle, and the search for it by Colonel Percy Fawcett, has been picked up by other papers. See Ben Macintyre's column in The Times, and yesterday's Sunday Times featured a big piece which included an artist's impression of what the city might have looked like.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

With much of Britain under a thick blanket of snow, the nation's press has been hard at work trying to come up with clever headlines and different ways of writing about the white stuff. Snow problem, in today's Guardian, is an interesting essay by Charlie English in which he argues that society's determination to try and carry on as normal under these conditions is dangerously foolhardy. English, author of The Snow Tourist, starts off with the example of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson relating how when an Inuit becomes lost in a blizzard he will make himself comfortable and conserve energy. When the storm has passed he will carry on to his destination. A European, by contrast, will instinctively want to thrash on.

Stefansson was a noted explorer and ethnologist who spent five consecutive record-making years exploring vast areas of the Canadian Arctic after adapting himself to the Eskimo way of life. However, he was also a controversial figure, particularly with regard to his 'blonde Eskimo' theory. This, he explained to members of the Royal Geographical Society, as reported in the Guardian March 11 1913:

'The thing that roused greatest interest is his account of his five years' trip has been his discovery of some Eskimo tribes of an unusual type. These tribes have never seen white men, at all events in recent times. The had distinct European characteristics (light , blue eyes, brown beards, and so on) , and tonight Mr Stefansson suggested that they might be descendeds of some Scandanavian settlers from Greenland who disappeared from there in the fifteenth century and may, he thinks , have made their way westward into these remote snowy places. He scouted the idea that these people might be descended from survivors of Sir John Franklin's expedition'.

Stefansson later regretted making the comments and recent studies have discredited the theory.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Amazon explorers find the Lost City of Z

For centuries, explorers and adventurers have ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a lost civilisation known as El Dorado or the City of Z. Long dismissed as a myth, it now turns out that there was indeed a human settlement in the upper Amazon basin. The Guardian reports that new satellite imagery and fly-overs have revealed more than 200 huge geometric earthworks near Brazil's border with Bolivia. Some date to as early as 200 AD, others to 1283.

The discovery vindicates many of those who have gone in search of the Amazonian 'new world'. One in particular was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who christened the lost El Dorado, the City of Z. In 1925 he set off, along with his son, to find it, leaving a note that nobody should follow them in the event that they did not return. They vanished without a trace and over the past 80 years numerous expeditions have tried to find out what happened, no doubt spurred on by reported sightings. This news story appeared in the Guardian, March 16 1932:

Fawcett's earlier Amazonian reports were to provide an inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Naturally, he features in Those Who Dared, but for a brilliant study of the man I would recommend David Grann's The Lost City of Z. A film of the book, starring Brad Pitt as the explorer, should be realeased, later on this year.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Douglas Mawson and the Antarctic's first plane

One of Britain's earliest aircraft has been discovered buried in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. The plane - the first off the Vickers production line in Britain - was built in 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers executed the first powered flight. It was taken to Antarctica by Douglas Mawson, the Australian explorer, but abandoned in 1914.

Mawson had hoped to stage the first flight over the Antarctic ice cap, but the plane crashed on the Australian mainland before he set sail. It was badly damaged but he decided to take the now wingless plane anyway and use it as an "air tractor" - keeping the propeller and guiding it by using a specially made tail rudder and skis - to pull his sledges while he was exploring.

A carpenter from the Mawson's Huts Foundation, a charity devoted to maintaining the buildings constructed in the Antarctic by Mawson's expeditions, spotted the remains of the plane among the rocks on at Cape Denison, on January 1. Low tides, prompted by a blue moon, the second full moon in a calendar month, and unprecedented melting ice led to its discovery.

Considered one of the great polar explorers, Mawson joined Ernest Shackleton's 'Farthest South' Nimrod expedition of 1907-09 as a scientist, being part of the team that climbed Mount Erebus and reached the Magnetic South Pole.

It was an expedition that set out in November 1912 to map part of the Antarctic coastline though, for which Mawson will probably be best remembered. After Lieutenant Ninnis, one of the three-man team, disappeared into a massive crevasse, along with six dogs and most of the supplies, the remaining two turned back. Resorting to eating the remaining huskies to survive, Dr Xavier Mertz then fell ill and died, probably due to poisonous levels of vitamin A from the dogs's livers. Mawson, while also in a dreadful state, eventually managed to make it back to base - only to see the ship that should have carried him to safety already out to sea. He finally managed to leave Antarctica and Those Who Dared includes an interview with the Australian when he visited London in May 1914.

More on Douglas Mawson can be found here.