Survival or Travel Stories Wanted
June 17, 2010 3:39 PM   Subscribe

I recently read the book Endurance about Shackleton's trip to the Antarctic and enjoyed it immensely. What other historical books in the same vein would I enjoy?

I came away from that book amazed at the way they survived and crossed unmapped icebound islands with no more than 50 ft. of rope and a pick axe. Now I want more tales of survival or even just tales of historic travels.

What other books are known for their well written tales of true adventure?
posted by kanata to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
How about Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:44 PM on June 17, 2010

Note: Doesn't have to be about the arctic/antarctic only. All tales of all sorts welcome.
posted by kanata at 3:48 PM on June 17, 2010

I really enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, which is about the whaling crew that inspired Moby Dick. They, uh, didn't have Shackleton's more-or-less happy ending, but it does make for quite the adventure story. There's also some great insight into the culture of early Nantucket.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 3:50 PM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy is really good. It is not one narrative like the Shakleton story, but a blend of history, anthropology, and oceanography entwined with a cruise which the author took to Cape Horn on a smallish, expertly sailed, vessel.

It will give you a taste, however, of what the early sailors faced when going out into the unknown. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
posted by Danf at 3:51 PM on June 17, 2010

I think The River of Doubt is awesome. Roosevelt's journey down an unexplored river in Brazil.
posted by leetheflea at 3:52 PM on June 17, 2010

Ooh I second In the Heart of the Sea....
posted by leetheflea at 3:53 PM on June 17, 2010

If you've not read Into Thin Air that should be first on your list.

Others you might enjoy:
- Race to the Pole (I liked this one better than Endurance)
- Over the Edge of the World
- In the Heart of the Sea
- The Lost City of Z
posted by something something at 3:54 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes features the amazing, late 18th century adventures of Joseph Banks, who in his youth traveled to unknown Tahiti. Nothing super death defying, other than 18th century sea travel, but still rather interesting for the time period, full of sexual libertinism and cultural exploration. He went on to become the President of the Royal Society and influenced Mungo Park to explore the "dark heart of Africa", a more tragic tale. The book also covers other scientists and inventors like William & Caroline Hershel (discoverers of Uranus and many comets) and Humphrey Davies (adventures in laughing gas!), while not travelers, still interesting people in their own right.
posted by rabbitsnake at 3:59 PM on June 17, 2010

The Last Voyage of Captain Cook: The Collected Writings of John Ledyard is the story in his own words of a peripatetic adventurer who not only sailed with Cook but also he WALKED ACROSS FREAKIN' RUSSIA (well, most of it). The prose thuds, but Ledyard, known in his time as "the American Marco Polo", led a fascinating life.

And then there are the books by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great 19th century British explorer who schemed, swashbuckled, and blustered his way around the globe while still finding the time to keep good notes. He wrote tons. Google him: most of his books are available for free from Project Gutenburg.

And in a more modern vein, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is the story of the US Mercury space program, the test pilots who became astronauts, and the risks they took.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:11 PM on June 17, 2010

The Worst Journey in the World is considered a classic. True, tragic, adventure.
posted by lex mercatoria at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi there. We seem to share a genre.

I have recently read and enjoyed the following:

True North
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea
The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty
Blood and Thunder

Also, I can't second In the Heart of the Sea strongly enough.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:16 PM on June 17, 2010

Oh, and Tears in the Darkness about the Bataan death march. "Adventure" obviously isn't the right word, but it does have that oh-shit-so-glad-it's-not-me factor.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:19 PM on June 17, 2010

I really enjoyed The Ghosts of Cape Sabine, which is about a really abysmal Arctic expedition.
posted by punchtothehead at 4:22 PM on June 17, 2010

I've really been digging the Alpinist, a quarterly journal about quick and light high altitude adventures, to fill that need. The writing it top notch... the pics are amazing.... just a really, really fun read.
posted by ph00dz at 4:24 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cabeza de Vaca. He's a Spaniard dude in the 16th century who landed on the southwest coast of Florida with a large party of conquistadores, and through a series of mishaps and bad judgement calls by the captain, Cabeza de Vaca ends up being one of only 4 survivors. He walks all of the way from Florida to Mexico City. Takes him 8 years though.

And just like Shackleton, Cabeza de Vaca shows up one day outside of Mexico City with his posse of Indians who think he's a holy man, and he runs into some young scamp of a Spaniard who doesn't believe that it's actually him, because the wild-looking nearly naked man is standing there claiming to be someone who's supposed to have been dead for years.
posted by colfax at 4:33 PM on June 17, 2010

Seconding The Lost City of Z- A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. A page turner. I peppered my friends with anecdotes from that book for weeks.
posted by Lisitasan at 4:37 PM on June 17, 2010

Dan Simmons The Terror is a fictional account of Franklin's lost expedition to find the northwest passage. It is fiction but the depiction of the environment and characters are quite realistic. It does an amazing job of giving you a feel for what it would be like to be stuck on the ice for 3 years.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:40 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is also one of my favorite genre's. Mawson's Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Tale is right up there with Endurance, and not at all an exaggeration.
I was not impressed with Into Thin Air. Instead, try AnnaPurna, by Maurice Herzog, a fabulous account of the first ascent in 1952. Another epic mountaineering adventure is Everest: the West Ridge , the 1963 US traverse of the summit.
Some original journals are worth reading: The Journals of Lewis & Clark (the DeVoto edit is very good), and The Exploration of the Colorado River, by J.W. Powell. Also, considering recent news, you should read Sailing Along Around the World, by Joshua Slocum, who did it first in 1895.
And any story or movie you know about 'mountain men' is based on the life of just a few men: Jedediah Smith (first white man to cross the Sierras), Joe Meek, Jim Bridger, and Osborne Russell. These books are more scholarly, but to read the things they endured while exploring the American West is amazing.
posted by TDIpod at 4:49 PM on June 17, 2010

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. (Sorry can't link from my blkbry).
It tells the story of Kit Carson and the emerging American West. I couldn't put it down -- just imagining him riding that mule from Santa Fe to San, that's ROUGH! He was larger than life.
posted by PixieS at 4:51 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hit post too soon, there is also
News From Tartary
A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water
posted by gudrun at 4:51 PM on June 17, 2010

I found Shadow Divers gripping because I'd never heard the story and knew nothing about deep sea diving.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:52 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Lost City of Z - mix of current day sleuthing and light adventuring with historic re-telling.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:01 PM on June 17, 2010

Yes, In the Heart of the Sea is excellent. I wasn't able to put it down.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:07 PM on June 17, 2010

+1 for The Worst Journey in the World.
posted by caek at 5:17 PM on June 17, 2010

South with Scott is utterly, utterly dismal, yet was really supposed to be "character building" for young Britons. I loved it.
posted by scruss at 5:22 PM on June 17, 2010

Seconding the Franklin Expedition. The Terror is a very fine book, and I'm sure there must be some good nonfiction on the subject as well - I do know that there's an excellent documentary.
posted by Artw at 5:22 PM on June 17, 2010

I've not read the book it's based on, but the movie Touching the Void is an amazing story of survival. I'd imagine the book would be quite good if it has anywhere near the impact of the movie.
posted by zen_spider at 5:24 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll suggest The Cruelest Miles, about the dogsledders who got diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska during a midwinter epidemic in 1925.
posted by dorque at 5:24 PM on June 17, 2010

Oh, and it's heat, starvation and bugs rather than ice, starvation and frostbite, but I'd definitely second the recommendation of The Lost City of Z. Very quick, lively read that one is too.
posted by Artw at 5:25 PM on June 17, 2010

And on preview, mega-seconding the suggestion of Touching the Void.
posted by dorque at 5:28 PM on June 17, 2010

The Perfect Storm
posted by beagle at 5:31 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite books of all time is Skeletons on the Zahara, about shipwreck survivors who wash up on the coast of Africa and are sold into slavery.

Ada Blackjack is another arctic tale, and the only true survival story I've read starring a woman. There are a lot of "adrift in an open boat" stories, In the Heart of the Sea is the best I know of, Two Survived was decent. Other books I liked were Into Thin Air (Mt. Everest disaster), We Die Alone (WWII commando stranded in the arctic), and As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me (Prisoner escapes from Siberian labor camp).
posted by groar at 5:35 PM on June 17, 2010

I went from Into Thin Air into a spate of books like this. The West Ridge is fantastic, but there's not much 'disaster' to it. It's an amazing tale of people exceeding limits in a mostly sane and well prepared way. Still fantastic. On the other hand, if you're more interested in the disaster aspect, Into Thin Air is worth checking out. Once you read it, it's worth looking into the original piece in Outside magazine (last I checked, they still had their back issues online). Not only was it written right after the tragedy, Krakauer made mistakes in his reporting, which was brought to light in responses to the article (also published by Outside), which Krakauer, when he wrote his book, fully acknowledged.

Stemming from that, the biography of Donald Brashears is fantastic. He had a direct part in saving people during the events in Into Thin Air, and a chapter of his biography deals with it, and it's interesting to see the event from a different point of view. Also, he talks about helping make Cliffhanger, which is its own cheesy reward.

Into Thin Air, though, is emminently readable. It's the kind of book where I can randomly open to the middle, then look up several hours later and wonder where the time went.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:38 PM on June 17, 2010

The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, as well as the TV series based on it. His bio of Shackleton is a great read, but probably mostly redundant if you have read Endurance.
Farthest North which is Nansen's own account of his north pole attempt. In many ways I think this is just as crazy of a survival story as Shackleton's.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 6:06 PM on June 17, 2010

Thanks all, this is a great list. So far the only ones suggested that I read are Into Thin Air and The Lost City of Z. So many to add to my library list.
posted by kanata at 6:26 PM on June 17, 2010

Into Thin Air, though, is emminently readable. It's the kind of book where I can randomly open to the middle, then look up several hours later and wonder where the time went.

This is so true. In three years of commuting by train, it was the only book to ever make me miss my stop.
posted by something something at 6:27 PM on June 17, 2010

This thread covers badasses of history with a bunch of book recs. I've swallowed mine from that into this comment...

You may have seen the WWII movie The Great Escape. You may not. It is one of my favorite movies. It shows teamwork and ingenuity and persistence. It is based on a book of the same title, written by one of the men who participated, Paul Brickhill. Brickhill also wrote Reach For The Sky, about a pilot who, legless, kicks (awful pun sorry!) ass in World War II air battles, including the Battle of Britain. A dozen years ago, I read When Hell Was In Session by Adm. Jeremiah Denton. Here, it's survival in the Hanoi Hilton. If you're okay with semi-fiction, you can try The Things They Carried. This one is less crystallized in my memory, but I remember it as being a fantastic read. (The author was IN the Vietnam War but the stories told are not precisely true.) And in a way, Catch Me If You Can is a tale of survival and travels. (Seemingly and unsurprisingly, the movie took some liberties.)
posted by knile at 6:42 PM on June 17, 2010

Ordeal by Hunger

Ocean to Ocean
posted by Ouisch at 6:53 PM on June 17, 2010

Okay, so this isn't about survival in the sense of starving in the Arctic, but for a modern story in the same style, try A Civil Action. It's about an environmental lawsuit that basically ruins a guy's life. It's incredibly gripping, and has the same sensation of watching people experience an extremity of existence.
posted by freshwater at 6:57 PM on June 17, 2010

Also Two Years Before the Mast
posted by Ouisch at 7:34 PM on June 17, 2010

My dad was enthralled by "Sufferings in Africa", which he mentioned specifically after listening to an audiobook of Shackleton.
posted by Lifeson at 7:41 PM on June 17, 2010

+1 for Alive, a surprisingly moving book about the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed into the Andes. It is rather, uh, grislier, however.

Also +1 for The Bounty.
posted by EmilyFlew at 8:06 PM on June 17, 2010

Seconds for Mawson's Will and Into Thin Air. When it first came out, I saw Into Thin Air in a bookstore. The book started on the cover and that drew me in. I sat down on the floor and read the whole book then and there. Couldn't stop.

Another book I didn't see here is Ranulph Fiennes' Mind Over Matter: The Epic Crossing of the Antarctic Continent (1993) ISBN 0-385-31216-4
posted by buzzv at 8:33 PM on June 17, 2010

This one's historic rather than gruesome: Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, published in 1841 by American diplomat John Stephens. Considering when it was written, Stephens comes across as fairly enlightened and open-minded, and he's a good storyteller with a fine sense of humor. Sweltering jungles, vine-choked ruins, mosquitos, machetes and malaria - the perfect tropical vacation.
posted by Quietgal at 9:06 PM on June 17, 2010

I really enjoyed The Lost Men, which is about the other half of Shackleton's party.
posted by bristolcat at 7:45 AM on June 18, 2010

The Long Walk was very good.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:53 AM on June 18, 2010

The Narrative Press publishes a fine selection.
posted by BigSky at 10:27 AM on June 18, 2010

Thirding Touching the Void.
posted by starman at 12:31 PM on June 18, 2010

Seconding Nansen's 'Farthest North'. The expedition was astonishing but so was the man. He invented a new type of ship that would rise up above the ice (instead of breaking up) and follow the ice's movements.
posted by Deor at 3:43 PM on June 18, 2010

I highly recommend Arabia Felix: The Danish expedition of 1761-1767 by Thorkild Hansen. This is over 150 years before Shackleton and in an entirely different part of the world. Very well written.
posted by severiina at 4:08 PM on June 18, 2010

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