Currently housed in a Tudor-style mansion in Manhattan, The Explorers Club is a real place with a legacy of adventurers among its ranks. Parodied in The Freshman, the club is a meeting place established in 1904 for the purposes of promoting scientific exploration around the planet, and it does host an annual dinner with unusual flair. A table can cost you $100,000 and features food including tarantula and other exotic animals that would be a nightmare for animal rights advocates, not to mention the taxidermy displays (Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was filmed there). Honorary members include the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, John Glenn, Sir Edmund Hillary, Buzz Aldrin, and the club has bestowed its highest award to notables including Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, Robert Ballard, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Not quite a secret society, the members have circumnavigated the world, flown, sailed, driven, and walked across each continent in search of the next discovery, returning back to the club to share the stories of their accomplishments. In one of his last projects before his death in 2003, journalist and noted personality George Plimpton (himself a member) collected 51 first-hand accounts of these journeys from the club’s ranks and published them as As Told at the Explorers Club: More Than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure, available now in a new edition from Lyons Press.
First off, readers quickly learn that most members do not like to use the term “adventure,” many commenting that adventures are the result of mistakes or poor planning, recounting a quote from member Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who said, “Adventures are a mark of incompetence.” Stefansson, known as the chief early explorer of Alaska, Canada, and the Arctic, himself discusses the topic in his entry in the book. Above all, these are accounts told as if by a crusty old codger sat you down by the fire with a howling wind and blizzard trapping you in your cabin, recounting a heart-pounding wild tale from his past.
The best stories will be in the eyes of the reader, but those most likely to leave you breathless are accounts of a climb up Everest at the border of Nepal and Tibet in 1990 and another hang-gliding off the K-2 straddling Pakistan and China. Count Edward Weyer’s encounter with a Bermuda Triangle-esque quandary in the Arctic is among the best of the bunch, along with Anne Keeleyside’s account of cannibalism among British explorers from the Erebus and Terror, and Prince Joli Kansil’s return to Pitcairn Island years after Fletcher Christian led a mutiny on the Bounty against Captain Bligh and first landed there with nine of his men. Other harrowing journeys follow one team rowing a boat across the Atlantic and another across the Pacific.
The collection also includes some of those stories you’d find on In Search Of…, like a search for a yeti in the Himalayas and an account of the ghosts of the man-eating lions of Tsavo returning to the Ngulia mountain region of Africa. A story’s excitement is directly related to the writing prowess of the author. Charles Lindbergh’s account of a flight gone bad that he had to parachute from is surprisingly rigid, lacking that puffery and exaggeration of the other storytellers.
Some of these stories are dated and will make many modern readers cringe. Plimpton included accounts disparaging Sitting Bull and other “Indians” and “savages,” including a despicable recollection about a young woman treated as her husband’s property in Central America. Sadly slaughtering animals for display, albeit some for museums and scientific study, were the stuff of excitement and pleasure for some of the writers across the continents, thankfully different than the reverence expected today among scientific and more civilized circles, although it begs the question why The Explorers Club still holds its dinners featuring exotic animals in the 21st century.
At 446 pages you can skip around and home in on what excites you the most and skip what offends, but every reader will find something appealing here. As Told at the Explorers Club: More Than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure is available now here at Amazon–it will make good reading over the coming cold winter.