Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Mountains

Web Review: ExplorersWeb

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.




Darwin, grumpy, and Dawkins...knitting?

Darwin, looking sullen, and Dawkins knitting?

Darwin remains remarkably fit for a man who’s been dead 126 years. The UK’s Channel 4 has been airing Richard Dawkins’ three part series “The Genius of Darwin” since 4 August. See screen clips and other bits at the Channel 4 site. Also make sure to check out The Beagle Blog and the Dispersal of Darwin for updates and reactions.

Also on Darwin: Dale Husband rants at length about the attempt to recreate HMS Beagle, update it for science, and sail it around the world. Like Dale, I am skeptical of historical voyage reenactments, something I’ve written about here. Most reenactments, unfortunately, try to prove points about the past by “recreating” them in the present. However, as I see it, Dale is off-base when it comes to the Beagle Project, an enterprise that does not fall into this category of reenactments.

Why? Because the Beagle Project has other fish to fry. When it sails, the new Beagle will offer 1) a consciousness-raising memorial to the work of Darwin, 2) a modern day platform for science, and 3) an opportunity in experiential education, the benefits of which are accepted by schools and universities throughout the world.

Deep Sea News has a big announcement which they reveal, brilliantly, in their first music video. Congratulations Craig, Peter, and Kevin. I want a t-shirt when you guys go on tour.

Poles Apart Exhibition, University of Delaware, Newark

Poles Apart Exhibition, University of Delaware, Newark

The University of Delaware is showing an exhibition on Arctic photography called “Poles Apart: Photography, Science, and Polar Exploration.” I’ll be giving a lecture there on 24 September. Information on the event is available here.

The History of Science Society Annual Meeting will be held in Pittsburgh this year from 6-9 November. I’ll be chairing a session called “Vertical Geographies of Science” on Sunday 9 November. Michael Reidy will be talking about Brit scientist and mountain lover John Tyndall, Jeremy Vetter will take on issues in Rocky Mountain ccience, Catherine Nisbett will explain the Harvard College Observatory’s Boyden Expeditions, and Brianna Rego will get to the poisonous bottom of arsenic contamination in mines and groundwater. This excellent team will win us, I’m confident, an HSS playoff berth, and, if Reidy is on his game, a trip to the Series.

But, as conference goers know, Sunday morning sessions are rather deadly. One offers one’s precious research to misalligned chairs and crushed plastic wine glasses. (I think I had four people at my last Sunday morning talk. Two of them were from hotel catering and one was waiting to take back the AV.) So if you are at the HSS, drop by and say hello. I’ll save you a seat.

Tragedy on K2



It now appears that eleven climbers perished Sunday on K2, the world’s second highest mountain. K2 is steeper and rockier than Everest and more prone to changeable weather. That makes it, in climbing circles, the mountaineer’s mountain. But I fear that this is about to change. In 1996, a number of climbers lost their lives on Everest, an event made famous by Jon Krackauer in his book Into Thin Air. Krackauer’s book was fiercely critical, not only of the actions of fellow climbers, but of a new selfish ethos that pervaded the culture of Everest. Yet new accounts of the Everest industry, by Michael Kodas (High Crimes) and Nick Heil (Dark Summit), show that the mounting body count on Everest has done nothing to slow the march of “clients” pouring into Base Camp. Indeed, the number has increased.

Arctic exploration exhibits a similar phenomenon. When 37 men died on two failed expeditions to the North Pole in the 1880s, it unleashed a torrent of criticism about North Pole expeditions, their motives and methods. Nevertheless, attempts to reach the North Pole increased over the following two decades.

Let’s face it, death imbues value on extreme accomplishment. Many climbers speak of an inner force driving them up the mountain (and I admit, I am not immune to this sort of thing either). But the reality is that there are many motivations for heading above tree line, that mortal danger and “bagging” mountains have a certain social cachet. In scaling K2, which has now once again asserted itself as one of the most dangerous of summits, the climber-who-sees-mountains-as-trophies accomplishes something of greater symbolic heft than an ascent of Everest.

Given this precedent, news of these deaths on K2 won’t deter new climbers but spur them on. Maybe the experienced high-altitude climbers, the Ed Viesturs of the world, will be able to deter the weekend adventurers. But I doubt it.

So here are my depressing predictions: 1) attempts to summit K2 will double by 2010 and 2) these ranks of climbers will have less experience in high-altitude climbing on average than they do now.

I hope I’m wrong.

Oh the Places You’ll Go

Youth instruction. Photo by Bentley Beetham

I have been burning the candle at both ends this summer. I just finished an article about Lewis and Clark & Alexander von Humboldt two weeks ago, wrote a review of Graham Burnett’s book, Trying Leviathan, started a review of Robert McGhee’s book, The Last Imaginary Place, and have started a new article on the work of Frederick Cook. That this seemed an excellent time to pick up blogging says something about me, I’m not sure what exactly, but it would involve words such as hubristic and harebrained. I’ve loved writing the blog to be honest…but on days like today there’s no gas left in the tank. So no grand thoughts tonight, just pictures.

George Mallory in Tibet

George Mallory in Tibet

I have been making up a list of visual archives. Here are three of my favorites. Bentley Beetham was a British traveler and photographer who got hooked on mountain climbing in the 1910s. His path converged with the Mount Everest Committee in the 1920s and led to his inclusion on the 1924 Everest Expedition. Mallory never returned from the mountain, but Beetham did, bringing with him hundreds of photographs of the mountains, climbers, and Tibetan life. The Bentley Beetham Collection offers 2000 of his works, a combination of brilliant lantern slides and photo prints.

Morning in Orbit, Apollo 7, JSC Digital Image Collection

Morning in Orbit, Apollo 7, JSC Digital Image Collection

NASA gets beat up a lot here at Time to Eat the Dogs. As much as I complain about its policies, though, I admit to some weak-knee moments when I see images of the Saturn V hurling itself into space. The NASA Johnson Space Center has archived nine thousand images of the manned space program online on the JSC Digital Image Collection. It represents half a century of human missions, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.

Test driving the lunar Lander in Earth orbit, Apollo 9, JSC Digital Image Collection

Test driving the lunar Lander in Earth orbit, Apollo 9, JSC Digital Image Collection

BibliOdyessey is a digital cabinet of curiousities authored by the Australian “PK”. PK must be in good with the Sydney archivists. Not only has he gotten some serious archive time, he’s also managed to bring his hi-def scanner along with him.  BibliOdyessey offers stunning scans of the amazing, the obscure, and the bizarre. These are usually good tags for voyages of exploration – which are also well represented here.

"Christmas in the Colonies," Illustrated Sydney News, 1882, BibliOdyssey

"Christmas in the Colonies," Illustrated Sydney News, 1882, BibliOdyssey

I’ll be on the road for the next few weeks updating when I can. Happy Voyages.

Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages (CRLV)

Voyage en Suisse, en Lombardie et en Piémont, 1834 (CRLV)

I have worked on Arctic exploration for over a decade and have been feeling lately that it’s time for a change. I like exploration too much to leave it as a field of study (as is probably obvious from this blog), so I have been digging into the literature on another love of mine, mountains, specifically the role of mountains in the work of nineteenth-century scientists.

I don’t have any method for starting new research projects. I have a “if time, pursue this” file, but most of these ideas feel stale by the time I get back to them. So I usually set off into the literature much the way less-than-smart dogs take to being off the leash: running around sniffing randomly until they find something good, chasing it till it runs out, then running some more until they something else. I pursue this approach until I find food. Methodological rigor comes later, usually about the time I need to apply for a grant.

In any event, I was in my dog phase a few months ago, when I started to realize something about the secondary literature on mountains. There are some divisions I expected to find according to discipline (lots of material in art history, for example, not that much in the history of science). But there were also some divisions I didn’t expect, namely differences according to nationality. In particular, it seemed to me that French scholarship on the intellectual history of mountains was very well developed whereas Anglo-American literature was still getting off the ground.

How much do we miss by not wading into the literature of other languages, other countries? It depends upon the research question obviously. But in my case, it’s something I need to do. I can read French, with effort, fingers gripped to the side of my desk. This too must change. I have been on the lookout in the last few weeks for serious exploration blogs or sites outside of the U.S and the U.K.

One of the best that I’ve found is the Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages (CRLV). This site has been around for a while, offers an impressive, searchable bibliography of primary literature on exploration (by author and location), a list of CRLV publications, schedule of conferences, and series of conference podcasts, some of which have abstracts and transcripts. Impressive.

I’ve been happy to note more traffic here from other countries, particularly Scandinavia. If you think I should be aware of exploration-related sites, please drop me a line.

Storm Over Everest, Part II

Beck Weathers

On mountains and character: near the end of Storm Over Everest, Beck Weathers observes:

“Everybody always says that the definition of character is what you do when nobody is looking. And when we were up there, we didn’t think anybody was looking. And so everybody did pretty much what their inner person, the real them, the exposed them, would do.”

In an interview about the making of Storm Over Everest, David Breashears uses Weathers comment to consider the power of Everest to reveal a climber’s “core” person beneath the social artifices we show to the world (hat tip to Geoff Sheehy):

The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.

This idea that the journey brings you closer to the person that you really are has long roots. We can trace it back to the Romantic movement in the late 18th century, when travelers set off into the wilds of nature in hopes of encountering “the sublime.” They sought to experience the beauty (and the terror) of nature, and in the process, learn more about themselves. No surprise that some of the most itinerant Romantic landscape painters of the 19th century headed to the mountains and/or the polar regions.

Frederic Church, Cotopaxi, 1862

We could also trace this idea back even further, to Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux in 1336. Petrach, an Italian poet who would come to embody the “spirit of the Renaissance,” used his hike up Ventoux (no oxygen required) to bushwack through the thickets of his own conscience. At the summit, he stated “I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself.”

I have written, in The Escape From Civilization, how this idea surfaces in the works of Robert Dunn, who tried to scale Denali in the early 1900s with Frederick Cook. For Dunn, explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.”

No doubt that mountains and other extreme environments create conditions that take us out of ourselves. Who can argue with Breashears that the hunger, cold, hypoxia, and sleep deprivation of Everest can make people act in ways at odds with their social personas? But what do we make of this? Breashears’ view – and that of Dunn and many others – suggests that the human psyche is a giant onion: tough, dirtied, and weathered on the outside, but pure at the core. Putting oneself in extreme enough environments, so this thinking goes, is a way to peel the onion and reach the true person underneath.

I don’t believe this. When you look at a person, when you look at yourself, where do you draw the line between artifice and real? My feeling is that what exists as “self” and “society” are elements we all carry inside of us which cannot be disentangled. We commonly think of “nature” and “nurture” as separate elements that influence the development of human beings – but think about it: can either of these elements exist independently of the other?

In any event, my point is this. Mountains are places to challenge oneself, to reflect, and find insight – certainly this has been their role in my life. But to say that they (or any environment) can burn away what is false from what is real doesn’t ring true to me.

Storm Over Everest

Tonight PBS’s Frontline will air Storm Over Everest David Breashears’ documentary about the tragic 1996 Everest expedition that left five climbers dead. It’s been a while since I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krackauer, but I seem to remember him portraying Breashears as a solid guy, willing to put his film on hold in order to help out the struggling climbers above him on the mountain. That being said, I had problems with Breshears’ IMAX film about the expedition which came out a few years later. It gave stunning footage of the climb, but one thing I didn’t like: the film tells the story of Breashears Ed Viesturs and two other climbers, but gives little mention of the many sherpa guides who were hauling supplies, IMAX cameras, etc to 28,000+ feet (their names flash by quickly in the credits at the end of the flim). Watching Breshears Viesturs climb near the summit, one gets the sense that he is on the mountain by himself (filmed by…God?). This reminded me a lot of the Arctic explorers I’ve written about in my book: though they depended upon the efforts of hundreds of guides, hunters, and sledge drivers, the photographs still usually wipe these away. We are left with an explorer, a mound, and a flag. Still, tonight’s documentary got a good write-up yesterday in the New York Times. For different perspectives on the subject, check out this post at the Adventurist.