06 October 2011


For Bilbo Baggins, an Adventure made life worth living. For the rest of his long life he itched for another.

For many human beings, adventure is often just being able to claim you were that first at something: the first on a new pitch at Smith Rocks, Oregon, the first to summit K2 in Nepal, the first to free-climb Half Dome in Yosemite...

There are several books at home that I cherish, including

  • "Undaunted Courage" - the Lewis and Clark expedition,
  • "Sailing Alone Around the World" - Joshua Slocum's first one-man circumnavigation of the Earth,
  • "Tigrero" - Alexander Siemel's hunt for man-eating Jaguars in Brazil's Matto Grosso,
  • "Endurance" - Earnest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, and Worsely's incredible open-boat navigation across 800 miles of the terrible Southern Ocean to South Georgia Island.
There are others, but these are the ones I re-read every couple of years.

I have pondered a definition of "Adventure."  In my opinion it means going off to someplace where few if any have gone before.  It does NOT mean a day-trip, or going somewhere that a cell-phone can call for help from. Importantly, it means going someplace where you are on your own.  If something goes bad, it's up to you and your expedition members to work out your own survival. Fail, and there is no record of the fact that you perished - or like the Franklin Expedition seeking the Northwest Passage, archeologists reconstruct your grim demise a century later. 

According to this definition, I and many of our family members have had some adventures:
  1. My first, 10-day sojourn in the deep Amazonas forest of eastern Venezuela. It was full of amazing wonders, including falling 50-meter (160-foot) flaming trees and the deadly Cuaima Pina, or Bushmaster snake - but I nearly died of Shigella - from a cook's dirty hands.
  2. Jared, Val, and I hiked to - and summited - Mount Roraima ("The Mother of Waters") on the Venezuelan, Guyana, and Brazilian triple-frontier. The trip covered over 50 kilometers on foot, and the last pitch required climbing a crack up a 700-meter (2,000-foot) cliff to an eerie Moonscape at 3,000 meters (9,600 feet) elevation.  We were promptly engulfed in a sleet-storm. 
  3. Louise and Lisa made that same trip the following year - Lisa wore flip-flops most of the way.
  4. Louise and Val hiked to the great Auyantepuy - the greatest cliff-sided mountain on Earth - and climbed it - and both nearly drowned in Devil's Canyon on the way.
  5. My first trip into the roadless Amazonas Territory of southern Venezuela. I was nearly consumed by insects on this trip, but the real sticker was an encounter with a pair of murderous bandits... who counted us at least three times before they decided there were too many of us (about 20) to cleanly kill. Our Venezuelan counterparts also reminded the bandits that we were American diplomats - and there would certainly be follow-up if we didn't return. 
  6. The first Summer Crossing of the Empty Quarter (there are only a handful of true crossings on record). This required driving 1,700 kilometers (over 1,000 miles) over continuous sand dunes in the hottest desert on earth - even Bedouin only venture into the fringes, and only in winter. Neither fixed-wing nor rotary aircraft can venture into this desolate place; we had only intermittent HF radio contact with the outside world. We camped one night in northern Yemen during its 1994 Civil War - because the Saudi border map placed one guard-post fully 72 kilometers (45 miles) from where it actually was. I completed a magnetic survey over an asteroid-impact site called Wabar when the temperature reached 61 degrees C (142 degrees F) - and according to my companions, was unconscious for 20-30 minutes from heat-stroke afterwards. The next day we visited a "weather station" that was so radioactive that my Geiger Counter went off-scale at its highest setting when my back was against the outside wall.
  7. The first overnight camping expedition inside Mount St Helens volcano, just as the 2004 - 2006 eruption was ending. You have no idea how immense this volcanic edifice is until you find yourself IN it. I did this to help a crew of desperate geophysicists, and unlike them I chose to walk out, and not take the return helicopter. This meant hiking in incredibly-dissected, unconsolidated boulder fields for nearly 20 kilometers with a 30-kg backpack. I lost a toenail and blew out a knee doing it, and no, there was no cell-phone reception. 

I have cherished photos of these trips, and the book Louise and I wrote has 45 photos in it, many from Mount Roraima. The really scary thing about these experiences, however... is that I would go back and do them again in a heartbeat.

I guess it's in my blood.  It's why I accepted the challenge to be the USGS chief scientist for volcano hazards. It's clearly in the family's blood, also. It must be genetic - I'm certain I got it from my wife and kids.

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