Friday, 23 October 2009


Back in a week...

Jane Bown portrait of Wilfred Thesiger

Last night saw the opening of Exposures: A retrospective of Jane Bown's portraits - an exhibition of 100 pictures by the Observer’s legendary photographer, at London’s Kings Place. Drawing on work from her six-decade career, there are familiar images such as that of a glowering Samuel Beckett or Bjork peeping out from behind her hands, but there are many more that have never been seen before.

Exposures, the book, includes Jane Bown’s recollections of the day the pictures were taken plus there's a Channel 4 film about the exhibition.

One striking portrait, not in the exhibition but which appears in Those Who Dared, is that of the explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. It was taken in 1990, when he was 80 years old.

In the winter of 1946, Thesiger, a British ex-soldier and colonial administrator, became the first westerner to explore in detail the Rub al Khali, or fearsome empty quarter of Arabia, the world’s largest sand desert. Travelling with only a small group of Bedouin and camels and wearing traditional Arab dress, he went there ‘to find peace in the hardship of desert travel ... the harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.’

Thesiger was the self-styled last explorer in the tradition of the past. That is, one of the great traveller-adventurer-writers who from Victorian times to the mid-20th century explored wild and lost areas of the world, often alone, enduring great hardship but delivering powerful works of literature on their return. No travel piece about desert exploration seems complete without making some reference to this towering figure.

Undoubtedly he was one of Britain's greatest explorers and very a fine writer too, but I think Rory Stewart’s comment that “rather than being the last Victorian he was closer to being the first hippy on the overland trail”, gets closer to the truth (from the introduction to the 2007 edition of Arabian Sands.)

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Shane McKonkey and ski-Baseing

Last Sunday's
Observer Sport Monthly featured an in depth piece on Shane McConkey, the world's greatest extreme athlete who died in a ski-Baseing stunt in March (can now be read here). The sport, a combination of snow and Base jumping involves skiing or snowboarding off a cliff and then, hopefully, parachuting to safety. Despite having made over 800 succesful Base jumps, McKonkey's luck ran out when he had problems releasing his skis, thus hindering the opening of his parachute. By the time he finally managed to sort himself out it was too late.

Would such an article have made it into
Those Who Dared?

When choosing the material for the book I aimed to include many of the 'firsts' - the first to reach the Poles, cross deserts, climb the highest mountains etc. However, with the success of the1953 British Everest expedition it could be argued that the golden age of exploration finally came to an end. The post-war era has been more about research based expeditions as well as trying to improve and better exploits that had gone before. Articles from the last 60 years are more about harder routes up mountains, making the fastest crossings of the great oceans or surfing the biggest waves - although it could be argued the Captain Webb was already doing this kind of thing with the the
first cross-channel swim in 1875.

There are also crazy tales such as
Goran Kropp's epic journey in 1996 when the adventurer rode his bike from Sweden to Mount Everest, climbed the mountain, and then cycled back home.

But there is always the nagging question as to whether such journeys are true exploration or simply exercises in pushing the limits of human endurance. Many would say that McKonkey's exploits fall into the latter, but I'm swayed by something the man himself said in an interview shortly before he died: "This is exploration for us." As the Observer article concludes, McKonkey and his friends "were exploring parts of mountains that had never before been skied, but they were also pursuing that oldest, most tantalising, and most dangerous dream of all: the dream of human flight."

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Fridtjof Nansen and his single ski stick

Travel writer Sara Wheeler chooses Fridtjof Nansen as My Hero, a new column in the Guardian review. The piece is accompanied by a picture which, while it looks like it was taken in a studio, perfectly conveys her description of the Norwegian explorer as "a long-faced Norseman with a touch of the archetypal brooding Scandinavian (as well as a hint of the Sphinx.)"

One interesting point is that while it was becoming the norm to use two ski sticks
at the end of the 19th century it, Nansen was fiercely devoted to using just one.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Cho Oyu and women mountaineers

Browsing through the programme for the Kendal Mountain Festival 2009, I came across details for Cho Oyu, a film and lecture about the 1959 all female expedition to the world's sixth highest peak. Organised by French climber, Claude Kogan, and with a team that included members of the British Ladies Alpine Club, the Pinnacle Club, and three Nepali women, this was the first ever women's attempt on an 8000m Himalayan peak.

Unfortunately the expedition ended in tragedy with the loss of four climbers and Sherpa – probably due to storm and avalanche at or above Camp 4.

A Fatal Obsession tells the tale of this groundbreaking climb including the really useful fact the Kogan was also a beachwear designer. Written by Stephen Harper, a Daily Express journalist, who reported on the expedition, he had to travel one step behind the women and (male) Sherpas.

The following leading article, which is included in the Guardian Book of Mountains, appeared on November 18 1959. It's also available from the Guardian and Observer Digital Archive.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Pole position

With the melting Arctic in the news, it’s worth rembering that it is just over a hundred years since someone claimed to be the first to reach the geographic north pole. On September 1 1909, the American explorer Dr Frederick Cook declared that he had reached it, in April 1908. However, four days later, another American, Commander Robert Peary, announced ‘Stars and Stripes Nailed to the north pole’, thus making his own claim. For months controversy raged as to who was telling the truth with the New York Herald backing Cook and the New York Times, Peary.

In the end Cook failed to produce credible evidence and Peary was declared the winner, going to his grave as the undisputed discoverer of the north pole. Later in the century suspicions were raised as to whether he too failed to make it and while many believe that he was probably close, the explorer Wally Herbert is now thought to have been the first to make it in 1968-9. Peary’s expedition is now remembered as much for the fact that Matthew Henson, his assistant, was black.

As I discovered whilst researching Those Who Dared, the story regularly featured on the pages of the Manchester Guardian. This useful map appeared on September 10 1909.

Floating to the north pole

The days of polar explorers hauling sledges over icy wastes could soon be numbered as a pioneering expedition has suggested that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer, within 20 years. The Catlin Arctic Survey, led by polar explorer Pen Hadow, found that the area covered by the survey was made up almost entirely of ice less than a year old. The region, in the northern part of the Beaufort sea, used to contain older, thicker ice that formed over several years and was more resistant to summer melting.

Hadow is quoted in The Times as saying: "A hundred years ago explorers used dogs to haul sledges and then we went through the stage of people hauling sledges," he said. "Now we have people wearing immersion suits and needing to swim, with the sledge floating. I foresee a time when the sledge will become more of a canoe."

Video and graphics about the change can be seen at

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Mountain Magic

Stunning images of the mountains and landscapes of Britain by photographer Van Greaves are featured in today's Daily Telegraph. Taken from his latest book, Mountain Magic, a selection of the pictures can viewed on this gallery.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Skiing to the south pole

The Scottish newspapers report that a disabled adventurer who broke broke her back in a climbing accident hopes to become the first person to reach the south pole using arm power alone.

Karen Darke, 38, was paralysed from the neck down after falling from cliffs near Aberdeen, severing her spinal cord and breaking her neck and arms. She now hopes to scoop a world record by reaching the geographic South Pole on a sit-ski. Since her accident, when she was just 21, Karen, who is based in Inverness, has pursued an ambitious programme adventures, one of the most dramatic being an ascent of El Capitan in California's Yosemite valley.

Naturally, Those Who Dared features tales of adventure from the polar regions including several from the Norwegian ski-pioneers, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen. During the years 1888-89, Nansen made the first crossing of the Greenland Icecap, an audacious trip he described as a "ski tour". Four years later he turned his attention to the north pole, his ingenious idea being to literally go with the floe - the theory was that the transpolar drift, a stream of ice, flowed across the pole from Siberia to Canada. Thus, Nansen rammed his ship, the Fram, into the ice and waited to be carried right to the pole. When it became obvious that he was going to bypass it, he abandoned his ship and made a dash for the pole, getting closer than anyone before.

Nansen was in many ways the father of modern polar exploration who "demythologized the polar environment, " according to polar historian and former Observer journalist, Roland Huntford (see, Two Planks and a Passion). He proved the value of skis as an economical way of travelling and the value of using dogs, as well as developing specialist equipment such as a lightweight stove.

Roald Amundsen, a protege of Nansen, included Olav Bjaaland, a champion skier, in the five-man team that was the first to reach the south pole in 1911. According to Huntford “They saw themselves not as explorers but as skiers. Nor did they feel particularly heroic. They had simply sped 740 miles and won the longest ski race in the world."

Monday, 12 October 2009

Was Ayatollah Khomeini's father a British explorer?

Was the late Ayatollah Khomeini's father, British explorer, William Richard Williamson? This idea is raised in Forbes Magazine by Melik Kaylan. Apparently the evidence includes the fact that Williamson, who spent time in the Persian Gulf in the late 19th century, "went thoroughly native, wore local garb, converted to Islam, married two wives in the Islamic way and produced 13 offspring", and that Khomeini was always highly sensitive about his ancestry. It's not a new theory, but Kaylan presents it in an entertaining way. More details about Williamson here.

Friday, 9 October 2009

A steep climb ahead

David Cameron's message to the Tory troops that "there is a steep climb ahead" but that "the view from the summit will be worth it", provides plenty of material for the newspaper headline writers. The Guardian has Touching the void: Cameron asks voters to join his 'steep climb', complete with a picture of Dave doing his action man stuff in the Arctic. There's even commentary from Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Fall

I'm glad to see that Simon Mawer's The Fall has been suggested for Tony Astill's list of mountaineering books by British writers, over on ClimbUK. The winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker prize, it’s a tale of two life-long friends, linked by their shared love of climbing, as well as various women in their lives.

The success of The Fall is that it’s a mountaineering novel that can be enjoyed by anyone - something not all books of the genre seem to manage. Mawer combines gripping mountain top drama and tangled relationships, whilst weaving social, as well as climbing, history into the plot. Events that inspired one aspect of the novel can be read here. The Glass Room, Mawer’s most recent novel made it to the Man Booker 2009 shortlist.

One omission from Astill’s list is Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1935, his own book about one of Eric Shipton’s often forgotten, but actually quite successful, expeditions to the Himalaya.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Dean Potter

The latest episode in Channel 4's Daredevils series was about Dean Potter, the world's leading exponent of slacklining - the sport of balancing on nylon rope stretched between two anchor points. The emphasis is on the word slack - as in slack, rather than taut - with no pole or safety equipment, and Potter does it thousands of feet above the ground in California's Yosemite Valley. Not surprisingly the photography was breathtaking, and the viewer was given an inkling of the "hyper-aware state" that Potter goes into as he walked along the 100 foot rope.

The key moment in the film was the controversy surrounding his solo climb of Delicate Arch, in Utah, an act that seemed to be the catalyst for the breakdown of his marriage. However, it wasn't totally clear how Potter was responsible for making the rope grooves in the rock, although an article in Outside attempts to explain the issues.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Explorer Gene

Is there really such a thing as the ‘explorer gene’? Michael Robinson takes a wry look at this on his Time to Eat the Dogs blog. It’s a rather complex subject so I’ll let him explain.

However, it reminds me of some of the ideas put forward in JRL Anderson’s book, The Ulysses Factor, published in 1970. Anderson, a Guardian journalist, proposed the theory that in man there is "some form of adaptation, which prompts a few individuals to exploits which, however purposeless they may seem, are of value to the survival of the race."

He explains that all humans have the Ulysses factor to some extent, but in modern times, where there are few frontiers left to explore, the instinct is often strong in flyers, climbers, offshore sailors, and especially solo voyagers. There area number of case studies including Eric Shipton, Bill Tilman, and Sir Francis Chichester. Great cover too.

Anderson joined the Manchester Guardian as military correspondent towards the end of World War Two and for the best part of a quarter of a century held a number of writing and editorial posts. But the job he liked best, and to which he probably appointed himself, was yachting editor, and over the years he was involved with a number or sailing adventures.

Charles Houston

Charles Houston, the physician who led the 1953 American expedition to K2, died last week. His great legacy for mountaineers and trekkers emerged from the groundbreaking research he carried out into high altitude medicine. As well as a Guardian obituary there is a lot more information about the great man on The MountainWorld Blog.

Dame Ellen MacArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur is retiring from competitive sailing to concentrate on campaigning to save the environment. The yachtswoman, who at the age of 28 broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005, announced on Desert Island Discs yesterday that a trip to the Atlantic island of South Georgia had made her acutely aware of the challenges facing the planet.

She will still sail for pleasure and to raise money for good causes such as her own child cancer charity.

Dame Ellen first came to the attention of the public in 2001 when she nearly won the Vendee Globe, the toughest race in the sailing world. For three months, MacArthur was on her own, skippering a 60ft yacht, that would ordinarily be crewed by 11 people, in the foulest conditions. She survived the freezing south Atlantic and the blistering hot tropics. As Bob Fisher noted in the Observer, her skill was not only as a sailor, but also as an engineer – dealing with sophisticated electronics and repairing sails and rigging.

Friday, 2 October 2009

North-West Passage

A story in last Saturday's Independent recounted how two sailors navigated the North-West Passage, the fabled sea route along the northern Canadian coast believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, in a 17-foot open sailing boat. Until very recently this journey would have been impossible as the way was clogged with thick ice. However, due to global warming, the route is nearly ice-free for the first time since records began.

Early European navigators sailed north into the Arctic during the 16th and 17th centuries in search of the passage. The British parliament offered £20,000 to the first person to complete the passage, in 1744, and over the following years expeditions gradually discovered parts of the Canadian Arctic archipelago as they pursued the prize. John Franklin, a veteran of arctic exploration, set out in 1845 on a well equipped north west passage expedition but when no news was heard from the crew, more than 40 parties were launched in search of them. Eventually is was discovered that the Franklin party had died from scurvy and starvation, along with evidence that the sailors had resorted to cannibalism - a fact reported with glee by the press.

According to polar historian, Beau Riffenburgh, in Myth of the Explorer, this marked the beginning of a sensational style of journalism that promoted and exaggerated exploits. Heroic myths were created to enthrall the general public, while less eventful, but more useful, scientific expeditions of the latter part of the 19th century were ignored.