Cover image for Points unknown : a century of great exploration
Points unknown : a century of great exploration
Roberts, David, 1943-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Norton, [2000]

Physical Description:
608 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"An Outside book."
Added Author:
Format :


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G525 .P56 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From Robert Falcon Scott's final journal entry to Jon Krakauer's daring solo climb of the Devils Thumb to Tom Wolfe's brilliant portrayal of Chuck Yeager shattering the sound barrier, David Roberts and the editors of Outside magazine have gathered the most enduring adventure literature of the century into one heart-stopping volume. A frigid winter ascent of Mount McKinley; the vastness of Arabia's Empty Quarter; the "Death Zone" near Everest's summit; the fatal black pressure of an underwater cave; a desperate escape through a Norwegian winter?hese and thirty-six other stories recount the minutes, hours, and days of lives pushed to the brink. Many are timeless first-person accounts brought back from the edge of the grim circumstances their authors lived to retell. Such reports open a window into the soul of adventure, the impulse that drives men to reach into the unknown. They also remind us that for the improbable and unbelievable, reality outstrips fiction every time. But there is more to adventure than hair-breadth escapes. Points Unknown includes inner passages: soul-searing quests across deserts, vividly evocative idylls, startling first encounters with primitive peoples, a poignant report of North America's last "wild" Native American, and even a few whimsical stories that reveal the spontaneity at the heart of adventure. As Roberts writes in his introduction, "an inordinate number of the excerpts in this book spring from dire predicaments their authors would just as soon have avoided. . . . Just as it takes interpersonal conflict to animate a novel, so danger and failure often give the spark to a journey that turns it into a memorable adventure." By turns charming and tragic, whimsical and nerve-racking, this extraordinary collection gets to the bottom of why adventure stories enthrall us. Selections include works by Edward Abbey, Tim Cahill, Edward Hoagland, Sebastian Junger, Jon Krakauer, Eric Newby, Ernest Shackleton, Freya Stark, and Wilfred Thesiger. As this stunning collection makes plain, exploration and the prose it inspires are alive and well at the turn of the new century.

Author Notes

David Roberts is the author of, most recently The Lost World of the Old Ones, among twenty-six books about mountaineering, exploration, adventure, and Western history and anthropology.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

This anthology introduces a new imprint allying Norton with Outside magazine. Editor Roberts selects 41 pieces from mountaineering, trekking, navigating, spelunking, and assorted disaster-survival accounts of the twentieth century, writes an introductory critique, then sends the reader off to vertiginous peaks, heaving seas, baking sands, or steaming jungles. Other than Robert F. Scott's journal or Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, few of the sources will be familiar to most readers, which endows the text with a sense of novelty that meshes with many an excerpt's tones of humor, anxiety, and relief--or grief. A further attraction is the styles of writers who, though explorers first, are revealed to be stylists as well. Some write self-ironically in what Roberts calls the comic "Bunglers Abroad" motif; others compose self-critically, divining their attraction to remote and dangerous places; still others narrate straight their entrances and extrications from difficult spots. A mesmerizing display of the pull adventure exerts, this initial edition successfully inaugurates this imprint. --Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

What a pleasure it is to read, in the middle of the Texas summer heat, an excerpt from Robert Falcon Scott's diary of his chilly expedition to the North Pole and then, for a change of climate and scene, an account of Eric Hansen's barefoot walk across the rain forests of Borneo. Roberts (True Summit) has assembled a wonderful collection of excerpts from mostly first-person narratives of adventure travel and exploration from the beginning of the century until today. Each selection is preceded by a short introductory passage written by well-known writers and adventurers (Jon Krakauer and Eric Newby) as well as the lesser known: Joshua Slocum (sailing around the world alone) or H.W. Tilman (descending Nanda Devi). At times the narratives focus on the challenge of the individual vs. nature, at others on the difficulty of teamwork when the struggle becomes overwhelming. All in all, this is a great treasure-trove of daunting human courage, frailty, and persistence in the face of the unknown. It is impressive that these skilled adventurers also happen to be excellent writers. Definitely recommended.DOlga B. Wise, Compaq Computer Corp., Austin, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction Every generation of adventurers laments the fact that it was born too late. At the beginning of the twentieth century, as they set their sights on the great empty spaces of the Earth--the Poles, the high mountains, the deserts, the open seas--the best Victorian explorers wondered aloud whether their quests were perverse; for their predecessors had regarded those empty spaces as barren wastelands, not worth the trouble to investigate. Yet by 1900, there was no longer a Great West, unknown to all but Indians, for a latter-day Lewis and Clark to discover; no chain of South Sea Islands awaiting their Captain Cook; no unguessed source of the Nile for Burton and Speke to battle over.     So, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the young adventurer, trying to find a new route to put up ten feet away from a classic line on El Capitan or conjuring up a slickrock itinerary that no one has mountain biked before, rues the fact that long before he was born, luckier explorers knocked off the Poles, Everest and Annapurna, the Empty Quarter and the Northwest Passage. There seems little left for him to accomplish but to fill in the lacunae between the bold lines written by his elders and betters.     It is the premise of this anthology, however, that in the year 2000 adventure is alive and well. It would be amiss, of course, to ignore the revolutions in our relationship to planet Earth that our century has wrought--upheavals that, like those of no previous century, have truly changed the nature of exploration and adventure.     Consider the plights of two brave men who met their deaths at the heart of their quests, one in 1912, the other in 1996. Returning from the South Pole with his four companions, demoralized to discover Amundsen's tent mocking him at 90°S., Captain Robert Falcon Scott ran out of food, strength, and good weather only eleven miles short of a depot that would have saved his team's lives. For eight mouths through the Antarctic winter, Scott's teammates at McMurdo base worried and speculated. Only when a relief party found his last camp the next summer did those teammates learn what had happened to the polar party. It would take another three months for news of the tragedy to make its way home to England.     In May 1996, high on the South Col route on Everest, veteran guide Rob Hall found himself in trouble after refusing to abandon his exhausted client, Doug Hansen. Where Scott's denouement had played itself out in the utter privacy of an icy grave, Hall's ordeal was broadcast to the world. Over two-way radio, his colleagues in lower camps cajoled him to get up and start moving down. When it was too late for that, Hall's pregnant wife in New Zealand was patched through to him: their poignant farewell was eaves-dropped on by climbers all over the mountain, as the archivists of Everest's deadliest season took notes.     The difference is not one of degree, but a truly qualitative one. Yet Scott and Hall shared an exigency that explorers have always demanded to keep adventure real. No matter how many ears could listen in on Hall's dying moments, in the midst of the storm that trapped him, the strongest climbers in the world were powerless to go to his aid. Rob Hall was on his own.     To be sure, the inventions that have transformed our access to the last blank places on Earth during this tumultuous century--from the airplane to the radio, from the submersible to the sat phone, from the four-wheel-drive vehicle to the GPS--run the risk at times of emasculating adventure. The hiker in the woods who, soaked in a downpour, pulls out his cell phone and calls for a rescue; the Caribbean sailor who, becalmed, starts up his auxiliary engine and chugs into port--these and their brethren are merely playing at a toothless facsimile of adventure, like kids camping out in the backyard who crawl back to bed after getting spooked in the dark.     One measure of the threat of modern technology to corrupt adventure comes in the proliferation of adventure travel companies during the last two decades. By processing a Bolivian trek or an Alaskan river run into a tidy two-week holiday package, with the guides buying and cooking the food, bargaining with the locals, and making all the decisions, these outfits perform the clever trick of giving the client the illusion that he's had a real adventure, while the true experience is more akin to a cruise on the QE 2. Tourism dates, historians reassure us, at least to the Middle Ages and maybe to ancient Rome; but never before has a whole industry so deliberately blurred the boundary between tourism and exploration as to convince a wine taster biking through France or a rafter bouncing down the Colorado that he's danced on the edge of risk and ordeal.     The onslaught of technology has dictated to true adventurers a new stratagem, which might be called "arbitrary self-limitation." As recently as 1953, the summit of Mount Everest was still so redoubtable that the British expedition attacking it could use every means at its disposal--bottled oxygen, miles of fixed ropes, metal ladders across crevasses, all army of porters and Sherpas, tons of food and gear--and yet gain no guarantee of success. In 1996, on the other hand, to keep the game a good one, the lone Swede Goran Kropp bicycled from his native country to Everest and climbed it solo without oxygen, refusing so much as a spoonful of another team's dinner, to ensure his self-sufficiency.     Arbitrarily limiting themselves, adventurers now decide to climb without pitons, bolts, or fixed ropes; to ski to the Pole without dogs; to swim a strait without a support boat. Having entered into the new wilderness that their own ground roles have posited, these men and women discover a freedom as heady as Columbus or Magellan knew. Thus Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, resolving to climb the savage west wall of Changabang in 1976 without support or the chance of rescue, or Eric Hansen, walking into the rain forest of Borneo in 1982, surrendering his fate to the whims of his Penan hosts--such travelers plunge into the heart of an indelible adventure, with the outcome uncertain, the epiphanies unpredictable, and life or death genuinely in the balance. In the twenty-first century, an incalculable richness of comparable journeys awaits.     Certain places on Earth, moreover, remain truly unknown at the end of the second millennium. Cavers today are only beginning to enter the golden age of their sport, for the deepest and most intricate underground labyrinths have yet to be plumbed. The depths of the ocean floor are still all but unknown, though whether humans or only unmanned submersibles will reveal them remains to be seen. Surely no exploratory venture ever undertaken provides more thrilling discoveries at the cost of more fiendish dangers than the nascent pastime of cave diving.     Some aspects of adventure, alas, will never be the same. In our impatient century, we have relentlessly whittled down the spans of time we are willing to expend on any quest. In the 1900s, polar explorers accepted the notion that to find anything really new, they must devote two, three, or even four years in the ice to their enterprise. Today, few expeditions anywhere last longer than three months. No intensity of experience can replace the impact of enduring for years in a truly hostile place. It is no accident that some of the masterpieces of early-twentieth-century adventure writing, such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World , have a lordly amplitude in the telling that mirrors those years of endurance.     Not all adventure need be extreme, of course, to be memorable. Toward the end of the twentieth century, a flowering of ironic narratives that celebrate the less-than-heroic exploits of would-be adventurers claims a rightful place beside the classics. Books such as Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush or Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo capture the humor of ordinary folks blundering their way into extraordinary pickles. Before the twentieth century, there were isolated examples of this comic genre, such as Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat , but its proliferation in the last decades of the twentieth century no doubt says something about the Age of Self-Consciousness all our tinkering has spawned.     Meanwhile, the adventurers of the next generation can lay aside their angst and doubt and, with a little imagination, invent the journeys that will provoke the adventure classics of the twenty-first century. At one of his lectures on some recent voyage, the great British climber and sailor H. W. Tilman was asked by an earnest youth, "But, sir, how does one get on an expedition such as yours?" Tilman bellowed, "Put on your boots and go!" A few words about the scope of this book. In choosing the forty-one excerpts for the anthology, neither I nor my editor nor a panel of consultants from Outside magazine claims that these are the forty-one finest pieces of adventure writing our century has produced. Any such claim would be foolish in the first place. Taste varies wildly, "classics" go in and out of favor, and no reader can be conversant with all the literature in a single field--say, long-distance single-handed sailing--let alone with adventure as a whole.     For several reasons, we have chosen to include only works written originally in English, even though that means omitting such otherwise obvious candidates as Maurice Herzog's Annapurna or Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet . If no single reader can be au courant in adventure writing in English, to claim a grasp of the landmarks in Russian or Chinese would be ludicrous. (Just last year, I was made aware of one of the true masterpieces of Arctic literature, a book written in Russian and translated into French, published in 1917, called Au Pays de la Mort Blanche , by one Valerian Ivanovitch Albanov. I had never before heard of the book, or even of the disastrous journey it chronicled. The copy I found in Widener Library at Harvard had not been checked out in sixty-eight years.)     Furthermore, just as Robert Frost once said, "Poetry is what evaporates in translation," so it is hard to judge the quality of writing in an adventure classic after it has been translated (more or less felicitously) into English. Is Thor Heyerdah] a good writer in Norwegian, or is his popularity in large part due to a series of skillful translators?     There is a temptation, in assembling an anthology such as this one, to choose great adventures rather than great adventure writing. One must resist the urge. Many stylish exploits have produced only mediocre accounts. The first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 exemplified expeditionary mountaineering at its blithest, yet Sir John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest is a plodding book. (Wilfrid Noyce's memoir of that expedition, South Col , came close to making the list.)     That great explorer and curmudgeon Vilhjalmur Stefansson was fond of arguing that adventure was always a mistake--adventure was what happened when you screwed up. Accordingly, he was proudest of the journeys he prosecuted in the Arctic that ran (and read) like clockwork. It must be confessed that an inordinate number of the excerpts in this book spring from dire predicaments their authors would just as soon have avoided--such as Art Davidson's grim bivouac in winter at Denali Pass or, for that matter, Scott's perishing on his return from the South Pole. This state of affairs cannot be helped: just as it takes interpersonal conflict to animate a novel, so danger and failure often give the spark to a journey that turns it into a memorable adventure.     Lest the anthology be all hairbreadth escapes, however, we have kept our eyes out for whimsical, lighthearted, even satiric adventures. Redmond O'Hanlon's stumbling through Borneo could have made for a tedious narrative rather than a hilarious one. Tom Patey's attempt on the north face of the Eiger could have read like a journal note rather than a Quixotic epic. The difference is in the writing.     We considered restricting our choices to first-person accounts by the adventurers themselves. Yet in certain cases--David Howarth's We Die Alone , Piers Paul Read's Alive , Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm --it takes an outside observer to capture the essence of a dramatic adventure. These excerpts, in fact, with their assumption of a disinterested, omniscient narrator surveying such highly controversial events as the survivors of an Andean plane crash cannibalizing their dead comrades, make for a beguiling change of pace from the necessarily subjective first-person accounts.     Many of the great adventures of our century have been the work of what we sometimes call "Third World peoples." Alas, their own tellings of these vivid events seldom find the printed page, getting passed down orally instead, generation after generation, by elders retelling the stories to the young. To try to do a modicum of justice to such exploits, we have included two passages that, though recorded by Anglos, spring straight from the peoples' own narratives. They are of the Apache warrior Massai's twenty-five-year survival as a hunted outcast in white America, in Eve Ball's Indeh , and of the profound discovery of the outside world thrust on the highlanders of New Guinea by a handful of Australian gold miners, in Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson's First Contact .     The most vexing problem we faced in compiling this anthology was the dearth of narratives by women that met our criteria. There is no shortage of fine writing by ambitious women travelers in our century, wonderful books by Dervla Murphy, Rebecca West, and Mary Morris, among others. In the end, we rejected such choices for the same reason we excluded the comparable accounts by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Leigh Fermor: they remain exemplars of the genre of travel writing, not of adventure writing per se.     Oddly, had we compiled an anthology of nineteenth-century adventure writing, we would have faced no such dearth, for that era produced an abundance of splendid narratives from the likes of Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird, and Fanny Bullock Workman. What was it about the Victorian age that allowed so many women to adventure so boldly and to write about it so well? Having made our selections for this anthology, we (including our women consultants) can only plead that at least we have avoided the temptation to toss in marginal narratives simply because they were written by women.     Readers may notice a disproportionate number of accounts in this book from the worlds of mountaineering and polar exploration. I confess that those realms are the ones of my greatest expertise. Were I an aficionado of jungle travel, no doubt I would have come up with some narratives that have otherwise escaped my sleuthing (as well as that of our panel of thoughtful experts). In defense of this possible imbalance, however, I would argue that mountaineering and polar exploration have each produced a strikingly rich literature. Caving and undersea exploration may be among the most vital forms of adventure taking place at the end of the twentieth century, but so far those enterprises have not given birth to a great deal of first-rate writing in English.     Rather than organize the excerpts by discipline or chronology, we have grouped them under three rubrics: Obsessions, Idylls, and Ordeals. Just how arbitrary these rubrics might be can be seen by pondering how easily an idyll can turn into an ordeal (as when Robert Marshall gets stranded on a sandbar in his beloved Brooks Range, with the river rising about him) or an ordeal can devolve into an obsession (as with Wilfred Thesiger's addiction to the Empty Quarter that nearly kills him). These rubrics, we hope, free us up both to pair like journeys undertaken by diametrically different adventurers (Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger, Joshua Slocum and Francis Chichester), and to avoid the plodding pace of six climbing narratives in a row or three all-but-fatal scrapes back to back. With these categories, we hope also to invite the reader to dip into the book wherever he or she pleases, rather than feel any obligation to read it from start to finish. If a collection such as this one succeeds, it is not so much because it represents a definitive gathering as because it delights the reader with the richness of little-known stories, thereby surprising us with the freshness--which adventure at its best opens tip to us--of new ways of seeing the world.     Finally, I would like to acknowledge and thank my judicious and indefatigable editor at W. W. Norton, John Barstow; Anne Majusiak, who tirelessly hunted down permissions to reprint these excerpts; Ann R. Tappert, our diligent copy editor; and our panel of experts--most of them editors and writers at Outside magazine--who gave so generously of their advice and expertise: John Atwood, John Brant, Nancy Shute, Dan Coyle, Tad Friend, Michel Guérin, Vaughn Hadenfeldt, Karen Karbo, Jon Krakauer, Bucky McMahon, David Noland, Meg Lukens Noonan, David Quammen, Marshall Sella, Peter Shelton, and Randy White. Copyright © 2000 David Roberts. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Robert Falcon ScottApsley Cherry-GarrardErnest ShackletonBertram ThomasWilfred ThesigerGeoffrey MoorhouseBob Connolly and Robin AndersonJoe KaneNoel OdellColin FietcherRichard BangsJon KrakauerJoshua SlocumRobert DunnRobert MarshallClyde KluckhohnH. M. TomlinsonEric HansenRedmond O'HanlonEdward HoaglandJohn G. MitchellFreya StarkTom PateyEric NewbyTom WolfeTim CahillEric ShiptonH. W. TilmanDavid HowarthPiers Paul ReadFrancis ChichesterSteven CallahanSebastian JungerThomas F. HornbeinArt DavidsonTheodora KroeberEve BallLaurens Van Der PostMichael Ray TaylorPeter BoardmanEdward Abbey
Introductionp. 11
Part I Obsessionsp. 19
From Scott's Last Expeditionp. 21
From The Worst Journey in the Worldp. 43
From South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition 1914-1917p. 68
From Arabia Felix: Across the "Empty Quarter" of Arabiap. 80
From Arabian Sandsp. 92
From The Fearful Voidp. 107
From First Contact: New Guinea's Highlanders Encounter the Outside Worldp. 122
From Running the Amazonp. 139
"Mallory and Irvine's Attempt" From The Fight for Everestp. 161
From The Man Who Walked Through Timep. 173
"First Bend on the Baro"p. 185
"The Devils Thumb" From Eiger Dreamsp. 198
Part II Idyllsp. 221
From Sailing Alone Around the Worldp. 223
From The Shameless Diary of an Explorerp. 231
From Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Rangep. 240
From Beyond the Rainbowp. 249
From The Sea and the Junglep. 261
"On Foot Towards the Highlands" From Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneop. 275
From Into the Heart of Borneop. 296
From "Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion" From Walking the Dead Diamond Riverp. 307
From The Huntp. 313
From "The Hidden Treasure" From The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travelsp. 329
"A Short Walk with Whillans" From One Man's Mountainsp. 342
From A Short Walk in the Hindu Kushp. 354
From The Right Stuffp. 369
"Caving in Kentucky" From Jaguars Ripped My Fleshp. 379
From That Untravelled Worldp. 394
From The Ascent of Nanda Devip. 405
Part III Ordealsp. 415
From We Die Alonep. 417
From Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivorsp. 430
From Gipsy Moth Circles the Worldp. 449
From Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Seap. 460
From The Perfect Stormp. 468
From Everest: The West Ridgep. 487
From Minus 148[degree]: The Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinleyp. 505
From Ishi in Two Worldsp. 518
From Indeh: An Apache Odysseyp. 532
From Venture to the Interiorp. 549
"Down to a Sunless Sea" From Cave Passagesp. 562
From The Shining Mountainp. 582
From Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wildernessp. 601