1. The Worst Journey in the World
By Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)As War and Peace is to novels, so is The Worst Journey in the World to the literature of polar travel: the one to beat. The author volunteered as a young man to go to the Antarctic with Robert Falcon Scott in 1910; that, and writing this book, are the only things of substance he ever did in life. They were enough. The expedition set up camp on the edge of the continent while Scott waited to go for the Pole in the spring. But first, Cherry-Garrard and two other men set out on a midwinter trek to collect emperor penguin eggs. It was a heartbreaker: three men hauling 700 pounds (318 kilograms) of gear through unrelieved darkness, with temperatures reaching 50, 60, and 70 degrees below zero (-46, -51, and -57 degrees Celsius); clothes frozen so hard it took two men to bend them. But Cherry-Garrard's greater achievement was to imbue everything he endured with humanity and even humor. And—as when he describes his later search for Scott and the doomed South Pole team—with tragedy as well. His book earns its preeminent place on this list by captivating us on every level: It is vivid; it is moving; it is unforgettable.
National Geographic Books, 2002.
By Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1814)Are there two American explorers more famous? Were there any braver? When they left St. Louis in 1804 to find a water route to the Pacific, no one knew how extensive the Rocky Mountains were or even exactly where they were, and the land beyond was terra incognita. Lewis and Clark's Journals are the closest thing we have to a national epic, and they are magnificent, full of the wonder of the Great West. Here are the first sightings of the vast prairie dog cities; here are huge bears that keep on coming at you with five or six bullets in them, Indian tribes with no knowledge of white men, the mountains stretching for a thousand miles; here are the long rapids, the deep snows, the ways of the Sioux, Crow, Assiniboin; here are buffalo by the millions. Here is the West in its true mythic proportions. Historian Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage gives a fine overview, but to hear the adventure in the two captains' own dogged, rough-hewn words, you need the complete Elliott Coues edition in three volumes. Buy all three. Dive in. Rediscover heroism.
National Geographic Books, 2002. Editor Elliott Coues published the definitive text of the Lewis and Clark journals in 1893, now available in a three-volume set entitled The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Dover Publications, 1979). A new, abridged version is The Essential Lewis and Clark (HarperCollins, 2000).
3. Wind, Sand & Stars
By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1940)Saint-Exupéry was without question the great pilot-poet of the air. And this remarkable classic attains its high ranking here by soaring both as a piece of writing and as a tale of adventure. It was Saint-Exupéry's job in the 1920s to fly the mail from France to Spain across the Pyrenees, in all kinds of weather, with bad maps and no radio. The engine on his plane would sometimes quit, he says, "with a great rattle like the crash of crockery. And one would simply throw in one's hand: there was no hope of refuge on the rocky crust of Spain." Nor in North Africa. He came down once in the Libyan Desert, and there was no water. He and his companion tramped this way and that and found no hope. "Nothing is unbearable," he tells us after a while. "Tomorrow, and the day after, I should learn that nothing was really unbearable." He is calm about it, thoughtful, disinterested, yet at the same time intense, riveting. He takes us to places between impossible hope and endless despair we did not know existed.
Harcourt Brace, 1992.
4. Exploration of the Colorado River
By John Wesley Powell (1875)Powell lost most of his right arm fighting for the Union, but that didn't stop him from leading the first descent of the Grand Canyon. The year was 1869, and he and his nine men started on the Green River in wooden boats. "We have an unknown distance yet to run," writes Powell, "an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well!" Ah, well, indeed. The rapids were overpowering. They lost boats and supplies. They ran out of food. Near the end, three of the men lost their nerve and climbed out of the canyon; they were killed by Indians. The others stayed with Powell and survived. Powell himself was an unusual man—tough, driven, hard to please. He was also a thoughtful man, a friend of Native Americans, and a gifted geologist. It is this combination—deep curiosity allied with great courage—that makes the book a classic.
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (National Geographic Books, 2002).
5. Arabian Sands
By Wilfred Thesiger (1959)The southern Arabian desert, a quarter million square miles of sand (650,000 square kilometers), is now a place of oil wells and Land Rovers, but before the 1950s it was still known as the Empty Quarter, a place you entered only on camel and only as an Arab. Only a few white men had ever seen it, much less crossed it. From 1945 to 1950, the British Thesiger crossed it twice, living with the Bedouin, sharing their hard lives. His book is the classic of desert exploration, a door opening on a vanished feudal world. It is a book of touches, little things-why the Bedouin will never predict the weather ("since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God"), how they know when the rabbit is in its hole and can be caught. It is written with great respect for these people and with an understanding that acknowledges its limits. With humility, that is, which is appropriate. Fail the humility test, and the desert will surely kill you.
By Maurice Herzog (1952)No one had ever climbed an 8,000-meter (26,250-ft.) peak when Herzog led a team of the best climbers in France to Annapurna in 1950. Maps were sketchy and inadequate; they had trouble even finding the peak. They climbed without oxygen. The weather was bad. Nevertheless, Herzog and Louis Lachenal made it to the top. But on the descent, disaster: lost gloves, frostbite, an avalanche. When rescue came, Herzog had almost given up and could hardly move. He lost all his fingers and thus did not write but dictated this book. It has its faults, mostly in Herzog's failure to credit his teammates as fairly as he might. Yet it conveys the essential spirit of climbing as no popular book had before and earns its place here as the most influential mountaineering book of all time.
Lyons Press, 1997.
7. Desert Solitaire
By Edward Abbey (1968)Abbey is our very own desert father, a hermit loading up on silence and austerity and the radical beauty of empty places. Early on he spent summers working as a ranger at Utah's Arches National Monument, and those summers were the source for this book of reverence for the wild—and outrage over its destruction. But really his whole life was an adventure and a protest against all the masks of progress. He wanted to recapture life on the outside—bare-boned, contemptuous of what we call civilization—and to do it without flinching. He helped ignite the environmental movement, teaching his followers to save the world by leaving it absolutely alone.
Simon and Schuster, 1990.
8. West With the Night
By Beryl Markham (1942)"A bloody wonderful book," Ernest Hemingway called it, and so it is—Africa from the seat of an Avro biplane, winged prose, if you will, about the lion that mauled her, about the Masai and the Kikuyu, about flying over the Serengeti, searching for the downed plane of her lover. It appears that Markham's third husband, writer Raoul Schumacher, contributed much of the literary polish. But what of it? The book, and the life, still radiate excitement: "I have lifted my plane from the Nairobi airport for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and the exhilaration of firstborn adventure."
North Point Press, 2001.
9. Into Thin Air
By Jon Krakauer (1997)Was it fate that put Krakauer—at once a crack climber, a seasoned journalist, and a sensitive conscience—on the world's highest mountain during that notorious 1996 season? Unpredictable weather, human folly, and a mind-set committed to client satisfaction killed 12 people on Everest that year, while the whole world watched. Krakauer showed us what it really meant: the traffic jams on the summit ridge; guides bending their own rules to get exhausted clients to the top. He showed us the consequences of disrespect for this formidable goddess, Chomolungma, as the Sherpas call her. And Krakauer is as hard on himself as he is on the rest. Whereas Annapurna is the record of a triumph, Into Thin Air is the postmortem of a debacle—less inspiring, but no less powerful. As the most widely read mountaineering work in recent history, it has profoundly shaped our idea of extreme adventure and who and what it is for.
By Marco Polo (1298)Polo dictated these tales to a scribe, a writer of romances named Rustichello, while the two men shared a cell in a Genoese prison. Just how much Rustichello added to the text nobody knows. Yet most of what Polo tells us about his overland journey to Asia checks out. He traveled during a relatively peaceful time, so this is not a book about taking physical risks. Nor is it as accessible to modern readers as many of the books on this list. Yet it is without question the founding adventure book of the modern world. Polo gave to the age of exploration that followed the marvels of the East, the strange customs, the fabulous riches, the tribes with gold teeth. It was a Book of Dreams, an incentive, a goad. Out of it came Columbus (whose own copy of the book was heavily annotated), Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and the rest of modern history.
The Travels of Marco Polo, in two volumes (Dover Publications, 1993).
11. Farthest North
By Fridtjof Nansen (1897)In 1893, Nansen purposely froze his ship into the Arctic ice and traveled with the drift of the pack. When the ship approached striking distance of the Pole, he set out for it by dogsled, reaching the highest latitude yet attained by man before turning back to Norway. He was gone three years. The book is both an epic and a lyric masterpiece.
Modern Library, 1999.
12. The Snow Leopard
By Peter Matthiessen (1978)He sees wolves, he sees the wild blue sheep of the Himalaya, but he never does see a snow leopard. Never mind, this is still Matthiessen's best book, a moving spiritual quest and a mountain adventure that celebrates the beauty of this dramatic country and the transcendence concealed in simple day-by-day survival.
13. Roughing It
By Mark Twain (1872)Twain lit out for the territory when the Civil War started and knocked around the West for six years. Roughing It is the record of that time, a great comic bonanza, hilarious when it isn't simply funny, full of the most outrageous characters and events. It is not an adventure book, it is an anti-adventure book, but no less indispensable.
14. Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana (1840)Scion of a prominent Boston family, Dana dropped out of Harvard and, hoping to recover the strength of his eyes, weakened by measles, signed on with a merchant ship as a common sailor. His book about his time at sea is an American classic, vivid in its description of the sailor's life and all its dangers and delights.
By Ernest Shackleton (1919)Shackleton's story bears endless retelling (and it has been retold, in fine accounts by Alfred Lansing and, more recently, Caroline Alexander). Here we have it in the great British explorer's own words, quiet, understated, enormously compelling. We all know the story: the expedition to Antarctica in the Endurance, the ship breaking up in the ice, the incredible journey in an open boat across the world's stormiest seas. Though Shackleton's literary gifts may not equal those of Cherry-Garrard or Nansen, his book is a testament, plain and true, to what human beings can endure.
Lyons Press, 1998.
16. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
By Eric Newby (1958)A British high-fashion salesman and a diplomat, Newby and Hugh Carless, with four days' climbing lessons in the Welsh hills, walk into Afghanistan, climb mountains, run into Kafirs with rifles ("Here," one tells the pair happily, "we shoot people without permission"), have a grand time, and survive. The result? This witty, dry, and very English adventure book.
Lonely Planet, 1998.
By Thor Heyerdahl (1950)Nine balsa-wood logs, a big square sail, a bamboo "cabin" with a roof made of banana leaves—thus did Norwegian Heyerdahl and his companions set sail from Peru toward Polynesia to prove a point: that the South Pacific was settled from the east. Point proved? Maybe not, but it's one hell of a ride—a daring tale, dramatically told.
Hardcover edition from Adventure Library, 1997.
18. Travels in West Africa
By Mary Kingsley (1897)She went by steamboat and canoe, accompanied by native crewmen, up the Ogooué. She fought off crocodiles with a paddle, hit a leopard over the head with a pot, and wrote with equal charm about beetles and burial customs. Other African explorers were more daring, none more engaging. When she died, the British buried her at sea with full military honors.
National Geographic Books, 2002.
19. The Spirit of St. Louis
By Charles Lindbergh (1953)This is Lindbergh's account of perhaps the most famous air journey ever made, the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. It's a spacious book, too, full of incident—bailouts over Illinois cornfields, Lindbergh's barnstorming days, family lore. More than the tale of a great adventure, it's a portrait of the adventurer.
Minnesota Historical Society, 1993.