After months of near-polar isolation, marooned in our houses with new routines and the same old people, we can relate a bit better to the experiences of explorers like Ernest Shackleton. We may not know the sheer terror of bracing for a 60-foot wave in an open rowboat on the Southern Ocean, but we understand the serious work of keeping boredom at bay during an extended period of isolation. We turn to survival stories and adventure books for solace and perspective, as much as for the vicarious thrills they offer.
The best books about adventure, survival, and the natural world aren’t sea-sprayed boast-fests, but all about humbling self-discovery under extreme conditions. Even then, they end up being less about individual toughness and more about our shared resilience, whether that sense of connection and rescue comes from other people or from the particular peace that settles on the solo traveler, deep in the wilderness or way out at sea. The best outdoor adventure books are about the incomparable beauty of the natural world and the absolute necessity of other people.
As we ease into the great thaw, with warmer days, an ever-widening safety net of Covid vaccines, and the moody perspective-seeking of spring, we’re all reflecting on our lives. What do we treasure now that we didn’t fully appreciate before, and what would we happily leave behind? These great books, back from the edge of human endurance, can help lead the way.
It’s hard to think of anyone who’s written more beautifully about the Arctic landscape than Barry Lopez, who passed away in December. Lopez spent years exploring the Canadian Arctic, first as a field biologist, and then on his own, walking, skiing, paddling, and sledding across the icy vastness to collect notes for a book that would “invoke things that are beyond the realm of biology.” He joins Inuit hunters, hangs out with fellow biologists, archeologists, and geologists in the field, and delves into the history of Arctic exploration, so much of it hellbent and wrong-headed. Lopez's Arctic is an endlessly surprising place, where tricks of Arctic light can erase the ground beneath your feet, where disoriented hunters mistake marmots for grizzly bears, a place where the monotony can break apart suddenly with a single loud crack, casting everyone into immediate peril. An all-time classic of nature writing.
While recuperating from a bad fall (he'd been startled by a snake while climbing a tree), 16-year-old Tété-Michel Kpomassie happened upon a library book about Greenland -- an ice-bound landscape that was the polar opposite of his tropical home in Togo -- and became obsessed with making it there, to live and hunt among the Inuit. As soon as he'd recovered, he ran away from home and started making his way. Over the next 12 years, he traveled and worked his way steadily through West Africa and Europe, picking up new languages and friendships with ease, finally reaching Greenland in the mid-1960s. Most of Kpomassie's classic is dedicated to his adventures there, living with Inuit families, immersing himself in daily life on the ice, and capturing a civilization already struggling to survive powerful foreign encroachments. Kpomassie is a uniquely sympathetic observer and plain brilliant writer.
Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 22 sailed for the Antarctic on Dec. 5, 1914, with the ambitious goal of crossing the continent for the first time. At a whaling station on the way, ship captains warned Shackleton that the ice would likely be impenetrable that year, but they sailed on, obsessed — and were soon trapped in a crushing ice pack off shore. They spent months watching their ship, the Endurance, crumple like a cigar box and sink into the deadly-cold sea. Then they gathered what they could -- dragging their lifeboats behind them -- and set out across a frozen ocean that broke apart unpredictably, casting men and gear into the sea. They were lost to the world for the next two years -- enduring hurricanes and hunger, as well as ice-bound monotonies that threatened the sanity of all. Through all the terror and tedium, they discovered what worked and what they valued most (amazingly, everyone survived). Harrowing, lyrical, and pleasantly technical, this is a riveting account of survival, problem-solving and teamwork.
Jill Fredston grew up just 18 miles north of Midtown Manhattan but discovered in her twenties that she felt far more at home in the wildernesses of Alaska. After studying glaciology at Oxford, she settled in Anchorage and, for more than 20 years, ran the Alaska Mountain Safety Center and Alaska Avalanche School, with her husband, Doug Fesler. (Together they literally wrote the book on avalanche rescue: 'Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard,' used by ski patrols everywhere.) In the off-season, Fredston and Fesler unwound by planning long-haul, ultra-remote expeditions along the edges of the Arctic Circle — rowing together around Norway, through the Northwest Passage, down the west coast of Greenland, and elsewhere -- logging tens of thousands of miles over the years. Fredston writes as beautifully about rowing technique as she does about first-hand encounters with grizzly bears, polar bears, killer whales, calving icebergs, and the wildest weather on the planet.