It took 20,000 years for the human race to move from the perils of cave dwelling to the sedentary comforts of modern civilization, and we’re clearly having second thoughts. Extreme outdoor sports and wilderness survival games are more popular than ever; magazines like Rock & Ice, National Geographic Adventure, and Outside proliferate; and a new genre of books has been scaling the best-seller lists — you might call it Outdoor Ordeals or When Bad Things Happen to Adventurous People.
Just arriving on the shelves are Modern Library’s paperback reissues of four classic narratives of exploration and adventure, handsomely illustrated with maps and photographs. There’s The Last Place on Earth (1979), Roland Huntford’s account of the race to the South Pole in 1911-12 won by the stoic, masterful Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and lost by the British navy captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose death (with four colleagues) on the ice made him a national hero but who was, in Huntford’s unsparing account, criminally incompetent and a perfect symbol of romantic folly. Farthest North (1897) is a first-person narrative by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who took off from his icebound polar ship in 1895 with a companion and dogsled and attempted to reach the North Pole on foot.
Francis Parkman’s La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869), one of the greatest works ever written by an American historian, describes the 17th-century French expedition that explored the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. And Starlight and Storm (1954) is an often lyrical first-person account of the most vertical and vertiginous ascents in the Alps by the French climber Gaston Rebuffat. Apart from being enthralling narratives, all these convey, like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, a cautionary message. You might be led into the wilderness by a nostalgia for rugged simplicity and risk, and you may feel a fleeting sense of romantic harmony with nature when you get there, but you’d better come equipped with abundant supplies, planning, a system, and clear, levelheaded goals — plenty of civilized intelligence, in short — if you want to get out alive. Huntford: A Nansen: A Parkman: A Rebuffat: A-