Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Call Me Starbuck

Guy Waterman

Guy Waterman

On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.

Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman  off-the-grid in Vermont.

Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Ahab.  As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.

Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again.  Near the summit of Everest in 1996,  David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.

They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]

It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.


Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.

Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.

Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence.  Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.

Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.

Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:

[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]

If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits.  But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica


  John M. Lynch wrote @

Successful explorers find comparison to Ulysses, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Virgil’s Aeneid.

I’m fairly sure you mean Homer’s Odyssey, right? Aeneas was a wanderer as well, but since the story isn’t quite as iconic, I’d imagine the former before the latter.

  Will Thomas wrote @

Actually, when reading your last post, and the absence of adventurism in justifications for exploration prior to 1880, I thought immediately of the narrator Ishmael, who begins the narrative of Moby Dick (1851) with an explicit discussion of the need to escape the civil world—from time to time. I guess by 1880 you have a journalistic field developed enough to make the market for escapist literature an actual motive for exploration.

OK, enough sophomore-year discussion section for me; back to the 20th century.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

John: I originally wrote it as Odysseus, but then I wanted to use the link to Tennyson’s poem, so I thought Ulysses would make the link clearer. Ulysses is a character, though you are right, not the main character, of Virgil’s Aeneid. Perhaps I’m just mucking it all up. I’m going to change it as you suggest.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Will: Yes, quite right. Ishmael deserves his own accounting which he doesn’t get from me – not out of scorn but fatigue. It was after midnight and I had to be up early with the kids.

  Miriam Goldstein wrote @

I love the parallel with Guy Waterman and Ahab – brilliant, self-destructive, iconic. It’s impossible to spend any amount of time in the Whites without running into Waterman’s (probably angry and displeased) ghost.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Miriam, thanks for writing. I never met him but the sense I get of him from Laura’s book is a man of good heart and soaring self-expectations, ones that he could not possibly meet. Guy put the death of two of his sons (both of whom also wandered off into the wild) on his own shoulders and did not have the means or the desire to express these feelings to anyone else. He reminds me of a figure from Ayn Rand’s imagination, a Howard Roark of the mountains, immensely talented and fiercely self-sufficient, but unable to make peace with the darker flaws of personality that connect us (I shouldn’t speak for others…connect me) to the rest of humanity.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Bryan Sinche, my colleague at U Hartford, writes:

Here’s an interesting note about Odysseus. The Homeric hero just wants to go home. Yes, he’s happy to lay with pretty ladies for years on end and check out all the cool stuff on the way, but his motivation is the restoration of the home, re-assumption of the throne, etc. etc. His identity is as much tied to Ithaka as it is to wandering (at least for him…we’ve done plenty with Odysseus since Homer).

For Tennyson, the homebound Ulysses is already tired of being there and he wants to take off again…to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. So which is it? Does this suggest that Odysseus is unhappy no matter what? That he is satisfied neither by home life nor by wandering? If so, he’s a lot more like Ahab than most people think (of course, a Greek hero is not a study in ambiguity, even a relatively ambiguous Greek hero like Odysseus).

And a note on Ahab. As the ship owner Peleg (or Bildad, I forget which) says, “Ahab has his humanities.” And those humanities are on display in “The Symphony” chapter which immediately precedes The Chase, Day 1 (Ahab dies on Day 3, of course). During the Symphony, Ahab looks into Starbuck’s eyes and sees Nantucket, home, family, peace. He even seems to waver for a moment as he laments his absentee marriage and the child who will never know her father, but, after Starbuck pleads with Ahab to return home and abandon his search for Moby Dick, Ahab goes to the other side of the _Pequod_, looks into the water, and sees both himself (a clear reference to Narcissus, I think) and the mysterious Fedallah (the badass harpooner from nowhere who eggs Ahab on throughout the voyage). It is this moment of self-absorption that leads us into the fatal chase. I believe that Melville wants us to
understand that Ahab’s obsession is with himself, not the whale. Ahab wants to transcend the very demands (and limits) of humanity and has imagined said transcendence as possible through the destruction of Moby Dick.

I guess what I’m saying is that I see more similarities in these explorer characters than differences. Starbuck, though, knows what is most important: home. He goes whaling to make a buck (hence his name), and while that
doesn’t endear his character to literary scholars who celebrate either the heroic Ahab or the contemplative Ishmael, it makes him awfully sympathetic. At least to a decidedly un-heroic guy like me.

Starbuck seems to grasp what Melville’s more monumental characters do not: “For in tremendous extremities, human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the cause of that peril; nevertheless—the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown.”

  Will Thomas wrote @

I’m with you Michael. I always liked Starbuck, too.

Also, good call on Fedallah: total badass. The English Lit people will come around to this inevitable characterization.

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