I’m sometimes asked for recommendations on decent reads in the adventure genre, so here’s a list of books which have inspired me to “throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence”. These fantastic books will be compiled in what is undoubtedly the greatest modern contribution to literary excellence – The Listicle. Give the people what they want, right?
When considering titles, I’ve decided to cast a wide net. This won’t be a collection of climbing memoirs, rather an eclectic look at exploration and adventure. Therefore, there will probably be some weird choices in here. Did you expect anything less?
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
The tale of the Endurance is truly remarkable, verging on unbelievable. They say truth is stranger than fiction, I suppose. With the ship imprisoned and subsequently destroyed by Antarctic pack ice, Shackleton and his crew battled the hostility of a polar winter in one of history’s most incredible tales of survival. He then captained a small lifeboat some 720 nautical miles to South Georgia, successfully traversed its uncharted, glaciated terrain, and returned to rescue the remainder of his crew. Not a single life was lost.
This gripping narrative was one of the first adventure books I ever read and formed a key source of inspiration in my future endeavours. The tale of the Endurance is possibly the most arresting account of heroism produced during the Golden Age of Polar Exploration. This is no small feat from an era when the emergency plan was something like “If you haven’t heard from us in 3 years, perhaps begin to worry”.
Alternatively, The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is another excellent entry on the subject of Antarctic Exploration and definitely worth a look.
Little needs to be said about this famous tome, except that it is one of the best fictional adventure tales ever committed to paper. If this book doesn’t make you want to embark on the “dangerous business [of] walking out one’s front door”, then there is something dead inside you.
Touching the Void
Tough day on the trail? Touching the Void should be all you need to put it in perspective.
After summiting a remote Peruvian peak, Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates became embattled on descent in the midst of a vicious storm. After the infamous event that became the genesis for a million “cut-the-rope” jokes, Simpson climbed out of a deep crevasse and hobbled his way over kilometres of glacier and moraine, all with the handicap of a broken leg. Not bad.
This epic tale of survival is ably spun by Simpson’s powerful and vivid prose. Despite our inevitable knowledge of the story’s outcome, it’s a dramatic page-turner and a story of grit and determination that can’t easily be forgotten.
Conquistadors of the Useless
From modest beginnings, Lionel Terray rose to become one of the 20th Century’s greatest alpinists. His autobiography continues in this spirit of modesty, all while describing some of the most badarse achievements in the history of mankind. These include, but are not limited to, the following exploits: the selfless assistance he offered to the summit party during the FA of Annapurna, fighting Nazi’s in the French Alps, performing harrowing rescue missions on the Eiger Nordwand, and several notable FA’s in the Himilaya, Andes and Alaska.
Easily my favourite book on this list, by far.
In 2011, two Australian explorers set out on what is sometimes regarded as the Holy Grail of Polar Exploration; an unsupported expedition from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. Initially inexperienced in polar environments, the pair achieved the feat with rigorous preparation and stoic determination. They completed the trek alongside an erstwhile competitor and polar veteran, Aleksander Gamme. Their interactions with Gamme are terrific example of sportsmanship and solidarity.
The first (and arguably more interesting) part of the book details the planning, training and preparation phase. It’s a brilliant, engaging bit of writing that deftly covers what may have been some rather dry subject matter. What follows is a diary-style account of life on the ice and the trials and tribulations therein, made palatable by its honesty and humility. It’s one of the few entries on this list that doesn’t court disaster at every turn, but proves nonetheless compelling.
The Dharma Bums
Written as something of a follow-up to On the Road, Kerouac’s second-most famous novel has a much more spiritual bent than its predecessor. It follows two young men in search of the meaning of existence as they wander about the West Coast in true Dirtbag style. Whilst the novel does indulge in various hippie nonsense, I found that the theme of self-discovery resonated quite strongly with me, particularly when paired with engagement in wilderness landscapes.
Strong echoes of the themes of cultural malaise and spiritual alienation can be seen in the current resurgence of counter-culture. As our society continues to grow inexorably and exponentially, more and more folks are becoming disenfranchised with so-called “normal life”. The ideals portrayed in The Dharma Bums are equally as relevant today as they were 60 years ago, if not more so.
Paths of Glory
I’m particularly fond of books that recall historical events in narrative form. The strictly factual composition of many non-fiction books can sometimes reduce them to mere textbooks rather than compelling tales of human spirit. Paths of Glory is a semi-fictional portrayal of George Leigh Mallory and the fateful 1924 expedition to Everest, where he and partner Andrew Irvine disappeared amongst the clouds high on the summit.
In writing the novel, Archer has taken certain poetic liberties with the story. Most notable of these is his decisive conclusion to what is one of mountaineering’s most enduring mysteries… did Mallory and Irvine top out? Even though Mallory’s body was located some 75 years after his disappearance by alpinist and all-round badass Conrad Anker, the answer to this question remains controversial. Paths of Glory provides a definitive (but ultimately unproven) conclusion in this engrossing tale of a tragic Himalayan hero.
Into the Wild
It’s not Into Thin Air (which, for the record, I’m also a big fan of…) so this Krakauer entry manages to slip through to the keeper. Into the Wild follows the ill-fated adventure of Chris McCandless, an enigmatic figure now firmly cemented in outdoor lore. Written in typical Krakauer style, it is exhaustively researched, efficiently written and intensely captivating. That said, the author does make several characteristic and ultimately needless digressions in order to make the reader fully aware of “How Fucking Good Jon Krakauer is”.
As the subject of the book and an equally successful film (Kristin Stewart not withstanding), the Chris McCandless saga combines more controversy than Watergate, Global Warming and OJ Simpson’s acquittal combined (source needed). His reputation is somewhat poor, especially amongst Alaskans and outdoor acolytes. However, the indelible mark that the McCandless story left on the hearts and minds of many is indisputable. Was he underprepared? Definitely. Was he an idealist with delusions of grandeur? Probably. Was he a moron? I’m not so sure. Am I asking rhetorical questions and then providing my own answers? It seems that way.
McCandless’ untimely demise is proof enough that he made some egregious errors of judgment, however his story in many ways embodies the spirit of adventure and the search for meaning and spiritual connectivity with the wilderness. Despite his methods, he was searching for the same ideals that many of us continue to search for today.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke
Whilst it clearly has nothing to do with climbing, nothing embodies the spirit of adventure better than the exploration of space. Infinitely more famous as the only Kubrick movie I didn’t like, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an excellent novel in its own right. For those unfamiliar with either variation, the plot revolves around The Monolith – an object of mysterious and extra-terrestrial origin. The discovery of this monolith sparks a quest to unravel its mysteries, all under the watchful eye of an omnipotent and eventually homicidal supercomputer named HAL. My personal belief is that the book carried the plot and its themes in a much more succinct and entertaining manner, but what the fuck do I know?
Written in 1968, Clarke was often eerily accurate in his portrayal of the future. As well as covering matters of exploration, the book tackles such weighty matters as evolution, intelligence (both human and artificial), the rise of technology and the spectre of nuclear war. Basically, it’s the thinking person’s adventure book. Both it and the subsequent sequels are well worth a read.
A Walk in the Woods
Of all the books I’ve listed, I feel like this one will attract the most criticism. A Walk in the Woods is a treatise on the Appalachian Trail and the author’s abortive attempt to walk it. Despite having missed large portions of the trail, Bryson manages to capture the character and spirit of the AT effectively, as well as an assortment of entertaining, lesser known facts.
Whilst Bill Bryson is an accomplished travel writer, he is, by his own admission, not particularly adventurous or athletic. I feel that this fact contributes to the success of the book rather than detract from it, making the idea of adventure and wilderness travel more accessible to Joe Common. At all times, the book is vividly descriptive, witty and engaging. Few other works have filled me with so ardent a desire to hoist my pack and disappear into the forest for 6 months.
What did I miss? What are your favourite adventure books?
Ryan Siacci, Esq.