What are the essential ingredients in a great adventure story? The Latin root of the word, oddly enough, means "an arrival," but adventure almost always entails a going out, and not just any going out but a bold one: Sail the Pacific on a balsa raft; pit your skills against K2; sledge to the South Pole. It is a quest whose outcome is unknown but whose risks are tangible, a challenge someone meets with courage, brains, and effort—and then survives, we hope, to tell the tale.
"Safe return doubtful," as the famous apocryphal newspaper ad soliciting Antarctica volunteers put it. No matter: There's seldom a shortage of applicants. Humans hunger for adventure, and most is voluntary—people choose to go out and explore or climb or fly alone across vast oceans. But sometimes adventure is thrust upon us: A jet crashes in the high Andes, stranding its passengers in the snows. A whale staves and sinks a ship. These, too, are tests of courage, endurance, resourcefulness. We stay up all night reading to see what happens.
Such stories are as old as civilization. The ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh is an adventure story. So are the Odyssey, the Viking sagas, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And they have mythological roots: Culture heroes go out into the unknown, endure various tests, bring back a boon—the Golden Fleece; the Holy Grail; the knowledge, at the very least, of strange new lands, strange new people.
The adventurer's rewards today are more personal but no less considerable. And those of us who stay behind still ask: What was it like? These are the books that answer that question. To help us choose and rank them, we gathered a panel of writers, critics, and other experts. We asked them to help us find the best stories of exploration, survival, and daring recreation—true stories, we should add; fiction is something else. (War stories are something else as well, and not included here.)
It might seem an impossible task to rank 100 great, but very diverse, books in terms of fine gradations of greatness. Yet anyone can tell you why they prefer one book over another. And that's what our panelists did. We asked them to assign a number of points to each book, taking several factors into account: the book's pure literary merit; its "adrenaline factor," or the level of excitement they felt reading it; and its impact on our history and culture. When we tallied the scores, we found the books that rose to the top were those that succeed on more than one front: great writing about great deeds.
In order to keep the list focused on adventure—as opposed to travel or nature writing, both of which deserve lists of their own—we excluded books that didn't involve at least a measure of physical risk or audacity. And we leaned toward first-person accounts over later retellings. Until quite recently, writing about one's adventures has been largely a luxury of men—and usually white, Western men at that. This is an unfortunate fact of history that a list like this cannot help but reflect, despite our inclusion of some neglected classics by others. Finally, for all the scientific rigor we brought to the task, our rankings reflect the personal tastes of our panelists. Readers may well disagree. So quarrel away. But read.
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.
20. Seven Years in Tibet
By Heinrich Harrer (1953)
Escaping from a British prisoner-of-war camp in India, the great Austrian climber headed for the mountains, Tibet, and freedom. Amazingly, he got all the way to Lhasa, where he befriended the young Dalai Lama. Revelations of Harrer's Nazi past have clouded his reputation, yet the book's deeply sympathetic portrait of the Tibetans endures.
By James Cook (1768-1779)
Captain Cook made three voyages to the Pacific, discovered the east coast of Australia, stove a hole in his boat within the Great Barrier Reef, tried to find the Northwest Passage, had countless encounters with natives—and died during one of them—and was one of the greatest explorers the world has ever known. His Journals are a sober but fascinating account of how it felt to redefine the boundaries of the known world.
Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific, as Told by Selections of His Own Journals, 1768-1779 (Dover Publications, 1971). Penguin publishes an abridged version, The Journals of Captain Cook (2000).
22. Home of the Blizzard
By Douglas Mawson (1915)
It is Antarctica, 1912, and the Australian Mawson and two other men set out across King George Land. They find themselves in treacherous terrain, and one vanishes into a crevasse, along with dogs, a sledge, and most of the food. Then the second man dies of starvation and dysentery. Blizzards rage for days, a week. Mawson endures. Mawson lives. A fine read that has never gotten quite the attention it deserves.
St. Martin's Press, 2000.
23. The Voyage of the Beagle
By Charles Darwin (1839)
The grand old man of modern biology was a gentleman of leisure, a crack shot, and no scientist when, at 22, he boarded the Beagle
for its long survey voyage to South America and the Pacific. His record of the trip is rich in anthropology and science. (His shipmates called him "the Fly-catcher.") The adventure comes in watching over Darwin's shoulder as he works out the first glimmerings of his theory of evolution.
National Geographic Books, 2004.
24. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
By T.E. Lawrence (1926)
A desert woman speaks to the British adventurer of his "horrible blue eyes which looked, she said, like the sky shining through the eye-sockets of an empty skull." Indeed. He must have been something—crazily intense in his white robes, as romantic a figure as any who has ever lived: Lawrence of Arabia. Who could resist such a book as this?
25. Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa
By Mungo Park (1799)
In 1795, Park enters the African interior with a servant, a horse, some clothing, a few trade goods, a pair of pistols, and two days' worth of provisions. Eighteen months later, he emerges with nothing but the clothes on his back and his notes, which he'd kept in his hat. In between lies perhaps the best of the great early African explorations.
Duke University Press, 2000.
26. The Right Stuff
By Tom Wolfe (1979)
With all the flash and fireworks of Wolfe's writing, it's easy to overlook that, at bottom, he's a great reporter. And this long and intimate look into the lives, minds, and deeds of the men who rode the first American rockets into space remains Wolfe's best book and the first true classic from the dawn of space exploration. The race with the Russians, the dauntless Chuck Yeager—Wolfe piles story upon story, and the pile glows.
27. Sailing Alone Around the World
By Joshua Slocum (1900)
At loose ends and in your 50s, what better way to pass the time than to sail alone around the world? The journey took three years and covered 46,000 miles (74,000 kilometer); Slocum was chased by pirates, survived major storms, suffered hallucinations. But he made it. He was the first to do it alone. Then he wrote this marvelous, salty book. In 1909, he put to sea again. This time, he disappeared.
National Geographic Books, 2004.
28. The Mountain of My Fear and Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative
By David Roberts (1968, 1970)
"The deepest despair I have ever felt, as well as the most piercing happiness, has come in the mountains," writes Roberts (now an Adventure
contributing editor). Here we have both, in two books, now available in one volume, that Roberts wrote when he was still in his 20s. The mountains are in Alaska; the passion is all in Roberts's young heart.
29. First Footsteps in East Africa
By Richard Burton (1856)
He spoke fluent Arabic and traveled in disguise to places barred to infidels. Harer, in East Africa, was one such place, and he wrote this extraordinary book about his adventures there. Burton was the very archetype of the British explorer—eccentric, restless, brave. A product of his time, he was consciously superior to the natives, but remarkably adept at making his way through alien cultures nonetheless. You read him for him as much as for what he accomplished.
Dover Publications, 1987.
30. The Perfect Storm
By Sebastian Junger (1997)
Waves ten stories high, hurricane-force winds, longline swordfish fishermen and their wives and girlfriends, bad omens, National Guard air-rescue teams, heroism, fear, and the bars of Gloucester, Massachusetts: Junger has a gift for gathering the elements, if you will, of his story, dramatizing them and impressing the hell out of you with the power of weather.
31. The Oregon Trail
By Francis Parkman (1849)
In 1846, the future historian of the American West went west himself, following the trail of the emigrant trains into the Rockies. "A month ago," he writes along the way, "I should have thought it rather a startling affair to have an acquaintance ride out in the morning and lose his scalp before night, but here it seems the most natural thing in the world." Generations of readers have loved this book; you will, too.
National Geogrpahic Books, 2002.
32. Through the Dark Continent
By Henry M. Stanley (1878)
We know him for finding Livingstone, who wasn't lost, in 1871, but the truly adventurous trip was Stanley's next, in 1874, when the British explorer became one of the first Europeans to run the length of the Congo. His account of that journey reads like some wonderful old boys' adventure tale—except that it's true.
Dover Publications, in two volumes, 1988.
33. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
By Isabella L. Bird (1879)
Bird was no lady in the conventional Victorian sense but a world traveler. She ventured through the Rockies when they were still wild, met up with grizzly bears, and climbed Longs Peak when it was thought impossible for a woman to do so. She had to thaw her ink on the cabin stove to write, and she wrote delightfully.
Hardcover edition from University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
34. In the Land of White Death
By Valerian Albanov (1917
In 1912, two dozen men on a Russian ship found themselves frozen into the Arctic ice. Eleven tried to walk out. In the end, two made it back to civilization; Albanov was one of them. It's a great survival story, well told, and (at least until its recent reissue, which was excerpted in Adventure
, November/December 2000) virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.
Hardcover edition from Modern Library, 2000.
By F.A. Worsley (1931)
Worsley was the captain of the Endurance
, escaped with Shackleton when their ship was crushed, and bore what they all bore. He navigated that heroic open-boat journey to South Georgia island, through weather that was so bad he could take sights on the sun only four times in 800 miles (1300 km). Still, they hit the island square on. Nice. His account is brisker than the thorough Shackleton's, but keeps the excitement intact.
36. Scrambles Amongst the Alps
By Edward Whymper (1871)
Whymper is famous for his first ascent of the Matterhorn and for the accident coming down, in which four of his companions died when their rope broke. He was irritable and sour but also a true iron man of the mountains. And his book ranks high among the classics of mountaineering in part for having helped promote the very notion that peaks are meant to be climbed.
National Geographic Books, 2002.
37. Out of Africa
By Isak Dinesen (1937)
Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen) knew the African countryside as intimately as her own face in the mirror. "The civilized people," she wrote, "have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it." From her own wild heart she wrote this achingly beautiful book.
Hardcover edition from Modern Library, 1992.
38. Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals
By Robert Falcon Scott (1913)
Whatever else English explorers can do, they can almost always write. And when things are at their worst, they manage, somehow, to be most eloquent. That's the only word for Scott's Journals
, with its entries running right to the end of his desperate race home from the South Pole. Scott's courage—and his mistakes—are known to everyone. Here it all is as he lived it, and as he died.
Carroll & Graf, 1996.
39. Everest: The West Ridge
By Thomas Hornbein (1965)
In 1963, Americans Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld went for the West Ridge of Everest and soon realized their route was too difficult to descend. So it was up and over, summit or die. They reached the top at 6:15 p.m. "The sun's rays sheered horizontally across the summit," Hornbein writes. "We hugged each other as tears welled up, ran down across our oxygen masks, and turned to ice." A breakthrough ascent, recounted simply and well.
40. Journey Without Maps
By Graham Greene (1936)
Liberia, 1935: "The great majority of all mosquitoes caught in Monrovia are of a species known to carry yellow fever." The U.S. Army map of the country's interior filled in the blanks with the word "Cannibals." "Have you thought of the leeches?" someone asked Greene. He went anyway, into the forest, on foot, village to village. Be glad. The book is just plain great.
41. Starlight and Storm
By Gaston Rébuffat (1954)
Frenchman Rébuffat climbed all six of the toughest north faces in the Alps and was one of the great guides and climbers of his day. One of the most joyful, too. Never has a man taken to his work with such enthusiasm. It makes his modest book a delight to read; you cannot come away from it without wanting to go into the mountains yourself.
Modern Library, 1999.
42. My First Summer in the Sierra
By John Muir (1911)
In the summer of 1869, young and fresh, Muir traveled through the Sierra Nevada with a shepherd and his flock. This book is his journal, and it, too, is young and fresh. Muir, who would become a legendary advocate for wilderness and the founder of the Sierra Club, always played down the dangers he faced. But this book is full, nevertheless, of bears. And charm. It reminds you of how much wildness we have lost.
Sierra Club, 1990.
43. My Life as an Explorer
By Sven Hedin (1925)
One example out of dozens: In December 1899, the great Swedish explorer of Central Asia sets out with four men and limited supplies to cross 180 miles (290 km) of enormous sand dunes. Temperatures drop far below zero. A camel dies. The men despair. The ink freezes in Hedin's pen. You hold your breath. Hedin keeps going. His thick and engaging autobiography is crammed with this kind of excitement.
National Geographic Books, 2003.
44. In Trouble Again
By Redmond O'Hanlon (1988)
Naturalist and lunatic, not necessarily in that order, O'Hanlon ventures into the northern Amazon Basin, where he hangs with the Yanomami, smokes their hallucinogens, and gleefully tells us about all the things that will make you sick or kill you. His book earns its ranking here on the strength of its unflagging humor.
45. The Man Who Walked Through Time
By Colin Fletcher (1968)
With this book, Fletcher may be said to have started the backpacking craze. It was his idea to walk the 200-mile (322 kilometers) length of the Grand Canyon, which had never been done. He did it, wrote this excellent book, and hundreds of thousands have since taken to the trails.
46. K2—The Savage Mountain
By Charles Houston and Robert Bates (1954)
K2 is a killer, not quite as high as Everest but more difficult. This book describes the 1953 attempt by a mostly American group who didn't reach the top but demonstrated, in the face of storms, an accident, and the death of one, the kind of modest courage you can only call exemplary.
Lyons Press, 2000.
47. Gipsy Moth Circles the World
By Francis Chichester (1967)
At 64, after a life already rich with adventure, Chichester left England to sail alone around the world, stopping once. Though Slocum faced much greater unknowns, Chichester nonetheless endured capsizing, injury, and the huge storms of the Southern Ocean. He reached England a national hero, and his fine book helped inspire today's round-the-globe sailboat races.
Hardcover edition from McGraw-Hill, 2000.
48. Man-Eaters of Kumaon
By Jim Corbett (1944)
Corbett was an Indian-born Englishman who became legendary for his ability to track and kill man-eating tigers and leopards—a valuable skill in a region where a single tiger could kill as many as 400 people. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.
Oxford University Press, 1993. The hardcover Adventure Library edition, Man-Eaters, combines stories from The Man-Eaters of Kumaon with Corbett's The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (1997).
By Richard Byrd (1938)
Spend the Antarctic winter alone in a small shed and it might get to you. It got to American explorer Admiral Byrd, who almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning. This is the story of his struggle with loneliness, despair, his body, himself. Some of Byrd's other claimed accomplishments now look questionable, but there's no doubt about this one.
50. Stranger in the Forest
By Eric Hansen (1988)
After trying and failing several times, spraining his ankle, and being frightened by tales of crocodiles seven meters (23 feet) long, Hansen managed to walk across Borneo, for reasons not at all clear to himself. He was brave and savvy enough to face down suspicious tribesmen carrying spears, but it is his open-minded humility when meeting the natives that is most impressive. That and his often charming klutziness. A wonderfully appealing book.
51. Travels in Arabia Deserta
By Charles M. Doughty (1888)
During his two years in the desert, Doughty traveled with camel caravans, lived in Bedouin tents, went hungry, and faced much danger. Then he wrote it all up in the most stylized, peculiar prose, which nevertheless gives us a fascinating picture of a type of Arab life that has been all but forgotten today.
Out of print, but secondhand copies are available.
52. The Royal Road to Romance
By Richard Halliburton (1925)
Ah, youth. No sooner did he leave Princeton than Halliburton was working his way across the Atlantic, bicycling through Germany, climbing the Matterhorn. He was in jail and out; he hunted tigers in India and trekked in Kashmir. And he was never anything less than exuberant.
Travelers' Tales, 2000.
53. The Long Walk
By Slavomir Rawicz (1956)
The author, a Polish cavalry officer, and six other men escaped from a Siberian prison camp in 1941, walked across Mongolia and the Gobi, through Tibet and the Himalaya, enduring incredible hardship all the way. Four of them made it to India and safety. It is a 3,000-mile (4,830-kilometer) epic, truly grand.
Lyons Press, 1997.
54. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
By Clarence King (1872)
King was a Yale man, a ladies' man, a friend of Henry Adams's, and a geologist. While still in his 20s, he began a survey of the 40th parallel, from the Sierra to the Rockies. He had adventures galore and was a natural storyteller. He was also one of the first Americans to climb mountains simply because they were there.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
55. My Journey to Lhasa
By Alexandra David-Neel (1927)
At the age of 55, Frenchwoman David-Neel crossed the Himalaya in midwinter and entered forbidden Tibet in native disguise. It was an extremely dangerous journey; she faced starvation, bandits, and unspeakable weather. But she brought to it a passion for Tibet and a fluency in the language that carried her through—and carries her readers as well.
Beacon Press, 1993.
56. Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile
By John Hanning Speke (1863)
Herodotus tells us about five young men of the Nasamones tribe who tried and failed to find the source of the Nile. More than 2,200 years later, it was still unknown. In two separate expeditions, in 1858 and 1860, British explorer Speke located and named Lake Victoria and at last determined that this was the origin of the Nile. His book reads like Victorian fiction-sweeping, detailed, and hip-deep in exploits.
Dover Publications, 1996.
57. Running the Amazon
By Joe Kane (1989)
Kane joined up with an international team—if that's the word for this squabbling group—to paddle from the high Andes all the way to the Atlantic through terrifying rapids and everything else. Their feat may not match John Wesley Powell's, but the cast is colorful, the action exciting, and the human drama as interesting as the physical.
By Piers Paul Read (1974)
People are still talking about the events this book describes: the crash of a Fairchild F-227 in the Chilean Andes in 1972 with a Uruguayan rugby team aboard; the fruitless search for survivors; the 16 people who did survive; and, most important, how they survived for ten weeks in the mountains—by eating their dead. In this nicely understated account by novelist Read, great courage and great horror go hand in hand.
Hardcover edition from Adventure Library, 1996.
59. Principall Navigations
By Richard Hakluyt (1589-1590)
Hakluyt believed that England should rule the seas and develop colonies before Spain gobbled up the whole world, and he compiled this book to fire the ambitions of his countrymen. At a million and a half words, it's less a book than an encyclopedia, packed with exploration and adventure stories that run from the tales of King Arthur to Drake, Raleigh, and beyond. It was, of course, influential beyond measure.
Penguin's abridged version of Principall Navigations is titled Voyages and Discoveries (1972).
60. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan
By John Lloyd Stephens (1843)
Imagine hacking your way through thick jungle while racked with malaria. The country around you is in chaos and on the brink of civil war. And you discover, despite all this, the lost city of Tikal. And 43 other Maya ruins. Stephens is the father of American archaeology, and this is his beautiful account of the expedition that made him so.
National Geographic Books, 2004.
61. Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex
By Owen Chase (1821)
Melville used this famous tale as a source for Moby Dick
(and it was recently recounted again in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea
), but here's the real thing: the first mate's account of how the Essex was sunk by a whale and how the survivors made it to South America in a small open boat.
Lyons Press, 1999.
62. Life in the Far West
By George Frederick Ruxton (1849)
Ruxton was an English adventurer who visited the American West, then returned to England and wrote this book. Technically, it's a novel (he changed a few names), but in fact it's a more accurate look at the lives of the mountain men than most nonfiction accounts. It's full of marvelous stories, and its heroes are just what we'd expect: strong, resourceful men of few words.
University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
63. My Life as an Explorer
By Roald Amundsen (1927)
Though his prose may not be as colorful as Nansen's, this great Norwegian explorer's achievements are unsurpassed: He was the first to sail the Northwest Passage, and he beat Scott to the South Pole. In his autobiography he reveals what inspired such a life: As a lad he had read about the travails of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. "A strange ambition burned within me to endure those same sufferings," he writes.
Out of print.
64. News from Tartary
By Peter Fleming (1936)
Armed with a rifle, six bottles of brandy, and Macaulay's History of England
(but lacking a passport), Fleming set out from Peking for India in the 1930s via forbidden Xinjiang, and he reports, with typically British irony, the troubles he ran into. (The rifle came in handy.) If only all adventurers could write this well.
Northwestern University Press, 1999.
65. Annapurna: A Woman's Place
By Arlene Blum (1980)
Ask a woman climber what inspired her and she's likely to name this book, the story of a 1978 ascent of Annapurna by a team of women, two of whom died. "What's a nice girl from the Midwest doing up here all alone?" the author asks herself at one point. Surviving. Blum's depiction of the team's Sherpas irks some climbers, but there's no denying the book's impact.
Sierra Club, 1998.
66. Mutiny on the Bounty
By William Bligh (1790)
The movies have taught us to see Captain Bligh as a villain and the mutineers as justified, but Bligh's own account, naturally, tells a different story. Once the rebellious sailors force Bligh and 18 loyal crew members onto the Bounty's
23-foot (7 meter) longboat, it becomes a remarkable survival story: an open-boat voyage of nearly 4,000 miles (6,440 km), on a scrap of bread and a half cup of water per man per day.
Out of print.
By Steven Callahan (1986)
American Callahan was sailing alone across the Atlantic when his 21-foot (6.5 meter) sailboat suddenly sank and he had only moments to get out. He spent 76 days drifting, starving, fighting off sharks, and patching his raft before making landfall. He shows us just how much will and intelligence it takes to survive in such hopeless circumstances.
Random House, 1996.
By Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1555)
Three hundred would-be conquistadores land near present-day Tampa in 1528 to make Florida their own. Eight years later, four naked survivors, our author among them, emerge from the wilderness of Mexico. Though little known outside historical circles, this is one of the most extraordinary survival stories ever told.
University of California Press, 1993.
69. Touching the Void
By Joe Simpson (1989)
Descending a hard route in the Andes, Simpson broke his leg and his partner was forced to do the unthinkable: He cut the rope between them. That Simpson survived the fall, that he crawled
down the mountain on his own, makes for some of the most hair-raising reading you'll ever enjoy.
By Robyn Davidson (1980)
Broke, a bit mad, but totally determined, Davidson traveled (mostly) alone across 1,700 miles (2,735 km) of Australian outback on wild camels that she herself had trained. This is a wonderful account of a loopy adventure that had nothing going for it but perseverance.
71. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville
By Washington Irving (1837)
Irving bought an unpolished memoir by a trapper named Benjamin Bonneville for $1,000 and then rewrote it. It was a good investment; this lively account, stocked with incident and grand in its sweep, is the happy result.
National Geographic Books, 2003.
72. Cooper's Creek
By Alan Moorehead (1963)
The story of the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860 into the unknown outback is almost an Australian epic. Moorehead, an Australian himself and a superb writer, tells the story of this tragic pair, their trek across the continent and back again, and their final days at Cooper Creek, where they starved to death.
Hardcover edition from Amereon, 1987.
73. The Fearful Void
By Geoffrey Moorhouse (1974)
Moorhouse wanted to be the first man to cross the Sahara, west to east, over 3,000 miles (4,830 kilometers) of sand. He also wanted to face his fears of loneliness, of annihilation, of being lost. He managed to make it 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers), and his account of his experiences, outer and inner, is understated but compelling.
Out of print, but secondhand copies are available.
74. No Picnic on Mount Kenya
By Felice Benuzzi (1953)
You're bored and dispirited, an Italian mountain climber stuck in a British POW camp in East Africa in 1943. What to do? Simple: Escape. Climb Mount Kenya with homemade equipment and little food. And then sneak back in. Benuzzi and two other men did just that, and though it was no picnic, it saved their souls.
Lyons Press, 1999.
75. Through the Brazilian Wilderness
By Theodore Roosevelt (1914)
All bluff and bluster? Not Teddy. People died on this trip down the Rio da Dúvida, or the River of Doubt, which had never been mapped. Poisonous snakes were common, close calls frequent, starvation a possibility, fever inevitable. A thrilling book.
Cooper Square, 2000.
76. The Road to Oxiana
By Robert Byron (1937)
Byron, a British adventurer, traveled in the early 1930s to the river anciently called the Oxus, between Russia and Afghanistan, looking for ruins. This book is his odd, sometimes funny, and always delightful account of the often dangerous trip.
Oxford University Press, 1982.
77. Minus 148°
By Art Davidson (1969)
Coming down from the first winter ascent of Mount McKinley, three climbers get caught in winds of 130 miles (202 kilometers) an hour (202 km/hour)—and hence a windchill of minus 148°F (minus 100°C) and that melodramatic title. They dig an ice cave to survive, their hands freeze up, the wind just won't quit. Whew! A minor classic in the will-they-make-it? category.
By Ibn Battúta (circa 1354)
The great 14th-century Moroccan wan-derer Battúta spent half his long life on the move. He went deep into Africa, circled India, and reached Russia, Sumatra, Shanghai. He was sometimes wealthy, sometimes penniless, often in danger. His book reminds us how ignorant we are of lives lived outside the Western tradition, and of a time when all travel was adventurous.
Ibn Battúta, Travels in Asia and Africa
(AES, 1986). This hardcover edition is published in India and available through a domestic distributor, South Asia Books (573-474-0116; email@example.com).
79. Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
By Tim Cahill (1987)
America's premier outdoor gonzo journalist, Cahill seems to have a license to get into trouble and does so consistently and well. Jaguars don't actually rip his flesh, but he does dive with sharks and nap with gorillas in this, his best collection of adventure journalism.
80. Journal of a Trapper
By Osborne Russell (1914)
Angry wounded grizzly bears, boats made out of buffalo hide, fights with the Blackfeet, semistarvation—it's all here, the life of a trapper in the Rockies in the 1830s and '40s, as told by one of the survivors, who kept this raw journal.
Narrative Press, 2001.
81. Full Tilt
By Dervla Murphy (1965)
In the winter of 1963, Murphy got on her bicycle and crossed Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Himalaya to reach India—by herself. She was not afraid, she says. Nevertheless, she carried a pistol, and needed it.
Overlook Press, 1987.
82. Terra Incognita
By Sara Wheeler (1996)
Now that Antarctica has been explored, is there anything more to say about it? Ask Wheeler, who went down to find out and came back to write this excellent book, in which she recounts some of the old Antarctic stories and tells many new ones, too.
Modern Library, 1999.
83. We Die Alone
By David Howarth (1955)
In 1943, Norwegian commandos sailed into a Nazi trap on the northern coast of Norway, and only Jan Baalsrud survived. This book tells the story of Baalsrud's escape across the snowbound Norwegian mountains and of the brave villagers who helped him. It's a great survival tale, and the good guys win.
Lyons Press, 1999.
By Gontran de Poncins (1941)
"If you see a man in a blizzard bending over a rock you may be sure it is me and that I am lost." So says de Poncins in this intense and very beautiful book about his sojourn among the Inuit in the Canadian north, where he goes to assuage a restlessness in his soul. This is his story of finding himself.
Graywolf Press, 1996.
85. Conquistadors of the Useless
By Lionel Terray (1961)
Terray's father once told him he'd have to be crazy to climb a mountain, "when there isn't even a hundred franc note to be picked up at the summit." Terray nonetheless spent his life making spectacular climbs, which he describes with French panache in this wonderful autobiography.
86. Carrying the Fire
By Michael Collins (1974)
An astronaut's life is adventurous by definition. Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins's account of his own is clean, often funny at his own expense, modestly heroic. The best firsthand account of spaceflight so far, it tells us what it was like up there, encapsulated in the infinity of space, how it felt to fall off the edge of the known world.
Cooper Square, 2001.
87. Adventures in the Wilderness
By William H. H. Murray (1869)
The wilderness is the Adirondacks, and Murray's book about camping, fishing, running rapids, and generally having a blast there helped begin a national craze to get out in the open.
Syracuse University Press, 1989.
88. The Mountains of My Life
By Walter Bonatti (1998)
The great Italian climber was always a loner and controversial among his countrymen, but no one denies his greatness. This edition includes his persuasive defense of his much criticized role in the first ascent of K2—it's a high-altitude detective story. And he writes like a dream.
Modern Library, 2001.
89. Great Heart
By James West Davidson and John Rugge (1988)
An impenetrable wilderness, death by starvation, the intrepid men and women of Labrador. This book recounts the tale of a failed 1903 expedition into the region's heart and then of two more attempts by rival groups, in 1905, to finish what the first one started. The authors retraced the original routes for this powerful account.
90. Journal of the Voyage to the Pacific
By Alexander Mackenzie (1801)
Ten years before Lewis and Clark, the Canadian Mackenzie, traveling with a group of voyageurs, became the first white man to cross North America. The story of their struggle to take their birch-bark canoe against the current up the Peace River is worth a book in itself.
Dover Publications, 1996.
91. The Valleys of the Assassins
By Freya Stark (1934)
Amateur archaeologist Stark takes the usual British attitude to adventure—What, me worry?—as she crosses vast empty places in Persia, dodging bandits, dodging the police, and "passing through fear to the absence of fear." A fine memoir.
Modern Library, 2001.
92. The Silent World
By Jacques Cousteau (1953)
Here is Jacques Cousteau before he became, well, Jacques Cousteau. This is his first book, about the invention of scuba gear and those first, daring dives with the new equipment.
National Geographic Books, 2004.
93. Alaska Wilderness
By Robert Marshall (1956)
The great conservationist Bob Marshall spent much of the 1930s exploring Alaska's Brooks Range. His book is double-barreled, full of his transcendent delight in wild places and full of adventure. By page 28, he is already recording this comment in his journal: "This may be the last thing I ever write." Happily, it wasn't.
University of California Press, 1956.
94. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians
By George Catlin (1841)
Catlin spent six years among the Plains Indians, and his paintings of them are world renowned. His book should be, too. He was a brave man—ready to take on a grizzly unaided—and a sensitive one. His book glows with respect for these people. Much of what we know about their lives we know because of him. Read, and give thanks.
Dover Publications, in two volumes, 1973.
95. I Married Adventure
By Osa Johnson (1940)
And so she did, when she wed wildlife photographer Martin Johnson, who took her to Africa and the Pacific and into a very exciting life indeed. She tells their story in straight-on American gee-whiz style; it would have the feel of Oklahoma!
, say, if those weren't real, and very angry, elephants chasing them up trees.
96. The Descent of Pierre Saint-Martin
By Norbert Casteret (1954)
Pierre Saint-Martin, in the Pyrenees, is one of the world's deepest caves. Casteret was one of the great pioneering speleologists. It took three years to explore this cave system to its end; one man died, and the story is a thriller.
Out of print, but secondhand copies are available.
97. The Crystal Horizon
By Reinhold Messner (1982)
In 1980, Messner climbed Everest alone—without oxygen. Though he is perhaps a better climber than writer, his story of the ascent still resonates: From then on, mountaineers would be asked not whether they reached a summit but how.
98. Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River
By John Kirk Townsend (1839)
Townsend, a naturalist, tagged along on a fur-trading expedition to Oregon and writes with great exuberance about his adventures among Indians, grizzlies, buffalo, and mountain men.
Oregon State University Press, 1999.
99. Grizzly Years
By Doug Peacock (1990)
Peacock is an ex-Green Beret medic, a sometime wilderness guide, and the model for the ecoterrorist Hayduke in Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang
. He's also one of the world's leading experts on the grizzly and has had more encounters with these lords of the wilderness than probably any other living American. There's nothing quite like walking through a landscape loaded with bear.
Henry Holt, 1996.
100. One Man's Mountains
By Tom Patey (1971)
In climbing, or any true adventure, if you're not having fun, what's the point? Patey knew better than anyone how to have fun in the hills. This is a wonderful collection of his short pieces, full of climbing feats and honest humor. He died young, doing what he loved.