Sunday, March 18, 2018

Limits of the Known

Limits of the Known, by David Roberts.

336 pp. New York: Norton ISBN 978-0393609868

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

After half a lifetime of mountaineering, and another half of canyoneering and writing books and magazine features, David Roberts has pulled together the various threads of his life in a book that is part memoir, part historical anthology of notable exploration, and part meditation on the meaning and limits of adventure and adventuring. Its summatory and valedictory flavour come from the autobiographical element, disclosed early on, that the author is living with an aggressive cancer (he guards us against the well-meant but double-edged metaphor of “battling” or “fighting” the disease), already spread and metastasized but against which, as of late 2017 when he finished writing, he was holding his own.

Each of the seven chapters of this artfully constructed book interleaves an account of one or more historical expeditions with an episode or aspect of the author’s own life that resonates with them, providing a parallel that Roberts then uses to discuss a series of themes that are fundamental to the mindset and actions of explorers and adventurers. While providing some finely written and thoroughly enjoyable expedition narratives, therefore, the book is much more than the sum of its narrative parts.

The most famous expedition covered in the book—Nansen’s polar drift in the Fram of 1893–96—is the subject of the opening chapter, where it’s interleaved with vignettes of Roberts’s childhood, discovering the joys of hiking and mountains in the Rockies, his imagination fired by space exploration, then by polar exploits like Nansen’s, and finally by mountaineering, the one arena that, in the 1950s, still seemed to offer the possibility of new discoveries—unclimbed peaks—of a kind that had once beckoned the great names of Arctic and Antarctic travel.

Another factor linking his experience with theirs is isolation, the underlying theme of the second chapter, which interleaves an enchanting account of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s reconnaissance of the remotest valleys of the Karakoram in 1937 with a description of an expedition that Roberts and a small group of companions, hungry for first ascents of unclimbed peaks, made to the Revelation Range in south-western Alaska in 1967. Roberts encountered his share of disappointment, failing to climb the peak he attempted in several campaigns over seven weeks, just as Nansen’s early optimism about sledging to the North Pole was crushed less than a month after leaving the Fram. Looking back from an age of satellite phones, the fifty days he spent without contact seemed to Roberts unfathomably isolated compared to today, giving him a kinship to Shipton and Tilman who, after leaving Srinagar with their porters and supplies were completely alone for four months—and with the crew of the Fram, a dozen men away from all other human contact for three years. Although extreme, such isolation was not an uncommon feature of expeditions during the great ages of exploration, an unavoidable sacrifice and a challenge that some rose to meet while others were crushed by it. In retrospect Roberts reports that the freedom to have no responsibility to contact the outside world for a time was an aspect of his Alaskan expedition that he treasures most—but at the same time is glad it was not much longer.

From the 1980s Roberts began to explore the landscape of the Anasazi in the American south-west, and his third chapter explores a conundrum that, as a climber, he became fascinated by as he visited the famous cliff-dwellings and, in remote canyons, discovered some previously unknown to archaeologists. Before the age of modern climbing equipment, how did those ancient people climb rock walls that seem dauntingly difficult even today? Samples of surviving Anasazi rope show they did not have enough strength to hold the weight of an adult, so they cannot have rappelled down from the clifftops. The ancient dwellers of the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, by contrast, had stronger rope, and their burial caves in the cliffside commonly show a stout stick thrust into the rock at an upward angle near the cave mouth. Their method, it seems, was to hazard a dangerous free climb to a cave, put the stick in place, and then loop enough rope over it for both ends to reach the ground, from which point they could haul up their relatives’ bodies. With the Anasazi, as with the Toraja of Sulawesi and the Chachopoya of Peru, there is the additional complication not only of climbing to a ledge or cave but transporting materials to build elaborate structures there. But where ropes are too weak to bear human weight, they may be strong enough to hold some kind of frame to a vertical surface, and Roberts concludes that series of log or bamboo ladders, connecting one ledge to the next, may have been the method used.

For Roberts, an important element of this question is that pursuing it provided a release from the essentially solipsistic pleasures of mountaineering: “However thrilling my canyon play … the game was not about me. It was about them.” Searching for modes of adventure that had a longer resonance with human history also led him to an interest in rivers, which have always been “far more central to human existence than mountains”. What were the potamic equivalents, he wondered, to the last great unclimbed peaks? Surely it would be the last undescended rivers—those not yet navigated by boat from their source (or close to it) to their mouth. These need not necessarily be technically difficult exercises in whitewater, although many are. A more common problem is the remoteness of the spot at which the boats are put in the water, often requiring a long hike or helicopter ride just to get to the jumping off point. In a series of writing assignments Roberts accompanied Richard Bangs, who has made this his life’s work, in descending rivers in Ethiopia and, in the book’s longest sustained episode of comedy, New Guinea, where the BBC crew filming their descent were more focused on their hotel accommodation and the structure of the finished documentary than they were on actually filming. Roberts felt the thrill of encountering people along the riverbank who often had almost no exposure to the outside world—“What are they thinking? Who do they think we are? Why do they think we’ve come?”—but in the end the lack of answers seemed to become a metaphor for their frustratingly fugitive interaction with people and landscape alike, forever borne onwards by the water without time for reflection.

The quest for human contact is at the heart of chapter 5, which focuses on the journeys the Australian gold prospector Michael Leahy made in the interior of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, when he was the first outsider ever to contact several tribes whose boundaries of experience seldom extended beyond their own valleys. With a mixture of genuine anthropological curiosity and a crude reliance on firearms to overawe all those he met, Leahy never found his crock of gold but did leave behind some five thousand photographs and several reels of 16mm film as a record of his travels, along with diaries that became more detailed and thoughtful as he progressed and gained confidence as a writer, providing modern anthropologists with a now-irreplaceable record of highland Papuan societies before any appreciable contact had taken place. Ironically, such first contact was for Leahy an unlooked-for side effect of his main purpose, yet it is what today places him in the line of first-contact explorers from Marco Polo to Bernal Diaz and James Cook.

In an age when satellite imagery can reveal every inch of the Earth’s visible surface—whether humans have trod there or not—we are accustomed to thinking of the physical exploration of the planet as being completed. But in two respects it is just beginning. The first, which Roberts does not go into, is the underwater world—both the geographical interest of the abyssal plain and submarine mountain ranges and the human interest of shallower seas that are the new frontier for archaeologists investigating the drowned surfaces on which our Palaeolithic ancestors walked. The second, which Roberts does write about, are the secret spaces underground: the world of caves. While everyone knows the location and height of the highest points on each continent, he points out, no one knows where the deepest points of the deepest caves are, because they probably haven’t been discovered yet. While a mountain might be seen and measured a century before it is climbed, no one can see and measure a cave—or even be sure of its existence—until they are actually descending into it. And this exploration is happening right now: over the last two decades the title of “world’s deepest cave” has been contended by various cavern systems in France before rival teams began “pushing” the cave systems of ChevĂ© and Huautla (in Mexico) and Krubera (in the Caucasus of Georgia) in long campaigns involving huge quantities of equipment and dozens of international cavers, resembling the Himalayan mountaineering assaults of the 1950s. Currently Krubera holds the record at 7,206 feet, but that is surely not the last word.

In the final chapter Roberts recounts his ongoing medical treatment and writes movingly of the deep friendships that his life of adventuring have led to, but also of the toll that life has taken on his wife Sharon, acknowledging the unthinking cruelty with which he brushed off her worries about accidents and bear attacks during his climbing trips even as he remembers a golden week they spent alone camping on an Alaskan lake island before their floatplane pickup. But for those in the future who, despite their loved-one’s misgivings, find their pulse quickened by the thought of adventuring into the unknown, Roberts sees no end in sight to the riches Earth has to offer.