Monday, March 31, 2014

The Spires of Arizona

During the second week of spring break I led a HOC backpacking trip with Annie to the Superstition Wilderness of Arizona. During this weeklong trip we hiked a loop trail, 35 miles in total. We traversed steep hillsides covered in cactuses and angry bushes. No sooner had we become accustomed to skirting prickly pears that the next crest would reveal fields of swishing dessert grasses. As the ecosystem seemed to shape-shift around us, so did the rock. We gradually descended into a basin that towered in orange, striated pillars and faces that undulated in curves carved out by the seasonal flooding in November.
About halfway through our loop hike, I glanced up at one of these towering faces, perhaps ten stories tall, that suddenly revealed a series of shadows that strikingly resembled a human face. My stomach flipped as I almost lost my footing, caught off guard by the eerie face. I suddenly thought of the tribes of individuals who had inhabited these basins over the past tens of thousands of years. I felt a refreshed sense of astonishment at these individual's fortitude. In this moment, the mountain I peered at reminded me of both the immensity of time and the human experiences in this basin that preceded my visit. What do mountains do? They hold a history that is often hidden, but sometimes jumps right out at you.

Oh Erasmus

Reading The Voyage of the Narwhal was an unexpected turn for me from the narratives and novel that we have read previously. To be fair, there was still an abundance of similarities connecting all of the stories in terms of the ever-present conflict between rational sense and ambition, and that of selfishness versus selflessness. There was also a period of preparation preceding the adventure, a plan of attack, and the unforeseen effects of nature. Underlying these similarities, however, is the major difference that this is a contrived failure. The story reads with a sense of inevitable doom similar to Into Thin Air, but it was even more obvious to me during the reading experience since The Voyage of the Narwhal was published as fiction. The only protagonist offered is Erasmus, the personification of failure, and the adventure itself might as well be a post-traumatic stress episode of his previous seafaring disaster. It therefore reads very differently from The Eiger Sanction, with its twists and sense of thrill; reading The Voyage of the Narwhal, I turn every page with an almost amused “What’s our sad clown gotten himself into now?” mentality.


I don’t know much about sailing but it seems, particularly from Captain Taylor’s attitude, that there is a clear and definitive hierarchy on a ship that is enforced at all costs. I was interested in this dynamic because I think it set the stage for Zeke being able to disregard the pleas from the crew and Erasmus on the basis that he was the expedition leader. The novels that we have read so far have, for the most part, fostered a greater sense of group mentality. The role of the leader is clearly defined, however, this role seems to entail an awareness of the needs of every team member. Whereas on the mountains group members seemed to be able to give input on the expedition, all decision making power was left to Zeke. Although the crew and Captain absolutely contested Zeke’s decisions, they consistently conceded to his outlandish demands in the interest of abiding by the hierarchy. It is not until the men are physically unable to comply with his desires to explore further that the men refuse to follow Zeke. Erasmus’ position in subordination to Zeke but clearly with more power than the Captain and crew was an extremely difficult one to navigate. He constantly battled with his sense of duty and allegiance to the expedition leader, while empathizing strongly with the condition and desires of the crew. I am interested to see how the dynamic of groups on maritime adventures differs from that of alpine adventures.

Recognizing the Work vs Recognizing the Author

On page 190, Dr. Boerhaave and Erasmus discuss their goals for their work and their personal ambitions. Dr. Boerhaave states that "It matters to me that I contribute my bit to our knowledge of the natural world. But not that people recognize me." Erasmus responds, "I'd like my work to be admired, but I hate my self to be singled out."I think this shows some of the fracture that has developed between Zeke and the rest of the crew. Zeke makes it clear that he has set out on this expedition to put his name on something and achieve personal glory. On the other end of the spectrum, both Dr. Boerhaave and Erasmus, the co-seconds in command, have joined the expedition to contribute to the understanding of the natural world, regardless of whether their names are attached to the findings. 

I think that this desire to name things using the names of the people who first discovered them is specific to the horizontal adventure. Yes, we have the Hillary Step on Everest, but we don't have the Herzog Glacier, or the Hornbein/Unsoeld Ridge or the Simpson Crevasse (too much?). I think Zeke's desire to embark on an expedition with the desire to discover something new to put his name on it points to the different mentalities of vertical and horizontal adventures. In vertical adventures, there is so much teamwork required to reach the summit that naming a first ascent after one person would be disrespectful to the entire team. In a horizontal adventure, yes a crew is involved but there is a clear hierarchy of commander, captain and others and the achievements are much more individual. This individuality gives expedition leaders the confidence and arrogance to name new discoveries after themselves. 

Epigraphs and Failures

Throughout this semester different authors have taken very different approaches to their narratives.  One approach I have found to be really effective is opening each chapter with an epigraph. Barrett chose to take this approach with The Voyage of the Narwhal.  Approaching this book I knew very little about sailing and arctic travel. These epigraphs helped to set the emotional and natural backdrop for Barrett’s story.  Krakauer also took this approach with Into Thin Air. In both cases I felt that by carefully choosing quotes what applied to the chapter I was able to better understand what the author was trying to say.

Another thing that stood out to me about this story was the idea that no one writes about failures. This struck me as a very accurate statement. We have read a number of stories about troubled expeditions or lesser victories, however none of these expeditions have truly failed. The two Annapurna expeditions experienced difficulties and losses however they met their primary objective. The only expedition that may be considered a failure is the Everest expedition in Into Thin Air.  There is a big difference between failure and challenges.  At first when I read that no one writes about failures, I thought that our readings thus far were perfect counter examples. However, on further thoughts most of the expeditions we have read about are clear examples of successful expiations, which met challenges.

A Naturalist Narrator

I enjoyed hearing this story through Erasmus’s eyes, but I wondered about the lives of the women left behind, and I think that was Barnett’s intention. The women must stay at home and wait for exploration to happen without them, and it is a shame that we do not get to hear their perspective more because the story is mainly told through Erasmus’s eyes. Erasmus says, “If I drew that scene I’d show everything happening at once…But when I describe it in words one thing follows another and everything’s shaped by my single pair of eyes, my single voice.” It is interesting that Erasmus notes his own bias and then goes on to reflect on the variety of perspectives inherent in this artic exploration. “I wish I could show it as if through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appeal and not just my version of it.” Erasmus, as a naturalist, presents a certain view of the world. He is able to see beauty in disaster and appreciate the world around him. The characters in the novel reflect real characters we have read about this semester and their different perspectives on adventure.

"I Want My Name on the Map"

When the characters set off on their journey, it appears that a shared mission fuses the crew: searching for any signs of Sir John Franklin’s missing arctic expedition. Erasmus Wells, the expedition’s naturalist, joins the expedition to look out for his sister’s fiancé, Zeke, and to gather information on the natural history of the artic region. Throughout the book, Erasmus shows that he is interested in exposing the natural wonders of the Artic (with recognition), but he seems less concerned about potential fame. As the expedition continues, the tension between Erasmus and Zeke become apparent and I began to question Zeke’s motives for the expedition. In pursuit of personal glory, Zeke is willing to sacrifice the ship and the crew and nothing will satisfy his ambitions: "I want my name on something," he tells Erasmus. "Something big - is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map." Erasmus busies himself with identifying the local flora and fauna while Zeke makes “elaborate maps of the coastline, naming every wrinkle” (as it turns out, Kane had visited “almost every place we went”). While they make discoveries of have contact with Esquimaux, the expedition is a failure in Zeke’s eyes. Zeke refuses give up his search for Franklin’s men and open polar sea – for Zeke, giving up on these goals means giving up on fame and fortune. Ultimately, Zeke’s selfishness and aspirations of fame put the expedition in jeopardy.

"Who ever writes about the failures?"

On page 71 Erasmus explains his last expedition to Dr. Boerhaave and presents the question: "who ever writes about the failures?"

I noted this because it struck me as so different from many of the readings we've done so far this semester about "vertical" adventures. Many of these stories were written after extreme failure had taken place-- a broken leg, deaths scarring a successful summit, etc. These failures are actually what make them such a riveting narrative.

However, perhaps these expeditions are entirely different. They are set out in search of answers and new information and if they return home without this they have failed. This seems similar to a story where no one gets to reach the summit of a mountain. Yet, no one writes about a failed summit attempt where nothing exciting happened.. the weather was bad so they turned around. Would anyone write about an unsuccessful expedition where no one starved or ate a friend? Perhaps not.

 So it's not that no one writes about failures, it's that no one writes about uneventful failures. An epic failure is what makes an extreme adventure narrative extreme. Annapurna attempts where everyone comes back alive may seem boring to many armchair adventures unless it is spiced up with graphic frostbite.

Are all armchair adventurers Eiger Birds in this respect? If no extreme failure happens-- would we be interested?

"The Story I Tell" - Novels and Exploration

One theme that remained consistent throughout The Voyage of the Narwhal was the desire to record one’s narrative or tell one’s story through written word. This idea was an essential and accepted fact for all of the characters that weren’t full-time seamen, and they were all compelled for some reason or other to document their experiences and findings.  The purpose of “discovery men,” as described by Captain Sturrock, is to “return to England and write their fancy books” (244).  Yet like many of the other sailors, he thinks this idea is unnecessary. Writing in Narwhal is shown as useless for those who make their livelihood on the sea, and is only important for men who make these exploratory journeys. Erasmus writes an arctic encyclopedia of his findings, Zeke and Kent write narratives of their travels. 

This leads me to ask the question: what purpose does recorded narrative have in exploration? Zeke describes “Is it fair that I have nothing left, except the story I tell?” (362) This novel presents the idea that a place cannot be explored or discovered, and an explorer is worth nothing, unless he has written his experiences and “claimed” the land he discovered. Exploration for the sake of discovery is no longer possible, it becomes a commercial commodity and each individual must one up the man before him.  Yet the fallibility of a novel itself is shown through Zeke’s descriptions of his creation process. He tells Erasmus that he and the rest of the crew will be a very small part in the novel because of the grudge he holds against his men. “It’s going to be… personal, a sort of adventure tale-my encounters with the Esquimaux, my last vision of the Narwhal.” (362). Zeke’s manipulation of his novel and our acute awareness of it calls to the reader’s attention the shortcomings and our dependence upon the words on the page.

The Driving Forces Behind Exploration

Although there are stark differences between the expeditions of mountaineers and maritime explorers, there are many commonalities that define their reasons for exploration. Early in the novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett, Zeke utters a statement that rings true with the mindset of every mountaineer we have read about so far: “How can anyone bear to live and die without accomplishing something remarkable?” (Barrett, 43). For Zeke, it was to make a successful attempt by sea on the North Pole. For mountaineers, such as Joe Simpson, Jon Krakauer, or even Sir Edmond Hillary, it was to make a first ascent of an unconquered summit. For all, the possibility of these accomplishments and the following recognition were the driving forces behind their expeditions. And the fact that all of these individuals were willing to risk their lives, and in Zeke’s case, the lives of his crew, in such extreme environments with such low odds of survival for the possibility of either public or personal glory bears strong testament to the influence of these driving forces on the mentalities and desires of all adventurers regardless of environment.

Erasmus Darwin Wells

Throughout this semester, we have read many stories of men "overcoming" mountains and being thought of and painted as heroes. From Herzog and his French team finding glory in a post WWII world to Joe Simpson surviving a should-have-been-fatal (as he described it) leg injury and then that great fall, the theme of heroism, at least, the theme of the books painting these men as heroes, has been pretty constant throughout these adventure narratives. Hemlock in The Eiger Sanction was our first introduction to a not-so-heroic hero. Of course, given the satirical nature of The Eiger Sanction, the fact that Hemlock was not much of a hero was not surprising. We then came to The Voyage of the Narwhal, with its narration "through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells" (as the back cover explains). Erasmus' job already does not sound very heroic, and throughout the novel so far he has not done much to prove his heroism. As readers privy to Erasmus' thoughts and secret conversations with Dr. Boerhaave, we know how strongly Erasmus disagrees with Zeke's impulsive decisions that keep on landing the crew in worse and worse situations. And yet, when the moments arise for Erasmus to stand up to Zeke, he recoils from it. While Ned becomes the voice of the crew when Zeke tries to push them again to go explore farther north, Erasmus votes no but not cofidently, saying "'I'm staying here,' Erasmus said, hoping he sounded as firm as Ned had" (210). Mostly, Erasmus' father's description of him seems pretty fitting: "Erasmus, he'd said, was like a walking embodiment of Newton's Third Law of Motion. Set moving, he moved until someone stopped him; stopped, he was stuck until pushed again" (74). Basically, Erasmus doesn't seem like the "typical" hero, as he is quite passive; he needs others to interfere for him to do anything. So my question is this: what effect does Erasmus being not-so heroic have on our reading? Or, if you disagree that he isn't very heroic, where do you see his heroism? Finally, on a related note, do you think that adventure narratives must be told by a "hero" (or that at least the narrator/main character must be painted as a hero)?

The End Goal

The Voyage of The Narwhal brings forth a new type of adventure narrative. Zeke and his team leave for an expedition that doesn’t have a physical summit and although they know that they will have to comeback, it seems that they struggle on defining the end goal of the expedition. Throughout my reading of this novel, I have finally been able to truly assess the importance of summits in the mountaineering narratives that we have previously read. The leaders of Antarctic expeditions are charged with a new task. They don’t have a final summit that they want to reach as they are exploring the unknown and must decide for themselves when to turn back. It seems that Zeke randomly decides that the expedition is a success after his encounter with the Esquimaux. I have found myself struggling with his decision to go back home so early in the narrative. I believe that Zeke is a bad leader due to his unwillingness to further explore the unknown but I also am conscious that the story isn’t told from Zeke’s viewpoint and it becomes difficult for the armchair adventurer to fully assess the leader’s decision-making skills. The lack of a summit makes me wonder now more than ever what brings men to undertake such perilous expeditions. Mountaineers climb in order to reach an end goal that they have set for themselves or to reach a summit but in The Voyage of The Narwhal Zeke risks his life and the life of others without having set a clear end goal for his expedition. 


The Voyage of the Narwhal is the first text of the course to emphasize the intricacies of human relationships within an extreme adventure. Erasmus' and Zeke's transforming relationship creates a lot of the adventure's character for both the reader and the other members of the Narwhal, while Erasmus' and Dr. Boerhaave's relationship is both interesting and safe for the reader to delve into, as the Narwhal sails. Part of this expression is due to the fact that the voyage is much longer than any of the mountaineering adventures we have read. Regardless, I still believe that Barrett spends more time proportionally focusing on relationships and their impacts on the trip than any other author. Many other books held relationships within the trip as one of the most important aspects of the book, but it has never been the main focus: Herzog was more concerned with reaching the summit, Blum never quite conveyed all of her climber's personalities, Krakauer was more concerned with controversy and relationships following his climb, etc.

Further, none of the other texts brought their readers into the minds of those who were left behind. Both Lavinia and Alexandra are dominant characters in the book and their, mainly Lavinia's, attachment to the adventurers allows the reader to openly sympathize with close friends and family left at home. Other books mentioned that the adventurers had ties at home, but never explored them. When Barrett shows the anxiety and uncertainty of a loved person's adventure, it is much easier to relate to than when loved ones are simply mentioned casually. In many ways, knowing that someone you love is in a risky situation is as difficult to cope with as being in a risky situation yourself.


As I have been reading the Voyage of the Narwhal I have been wondering why does Erasmus keep following Zeke?  Sometimes I feel that Erasmus is the only reason no one else on the ship has mutinied against him.  Is it out of loyalty to his sister, or because he is Zeke's friend?  I don't really understand it, especially because Zeke essentially made him sign Erasmus's findings over to him and blames Erasmus for not bringing enough healthy provisions for them to "winter over."  I don't think Zeke's leadership is any better than Herzog or Blum's, in fact I think its worse.  Yet, neither Herzog or Blum inspired the loyalty (or more aptly the total command) of their crew/group.  Herzog was not in absolute command, and he had plenty of arguments with his fellow climbers, as did Blum, yet neither of them had as many problems with their group as Zeke does and he still gets the final say in what the expedition does.  Is the loyalty he commands because of the militaristic authority he holds over his crew?  These are questions I am having a hard time answering because a). comparing non-fiction to fiction is challenging to me and b). the types of adventures are different.  Maybe this will become easier once we read more about arctic expeditions or finish the book but for now I am routing for the crew of the Narwhal to throw Zeke into the water and sail the fuck home.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

How to be a Follower of a Bad Leader

From my limited naval knowledge it seems that there is a more rigid, militaristic view of command on ships that is more extreme than most extreme expeditions, like Herzog's.  I think it is necessary to have this authoritarian leadership in certain instances, my thoughts turn towards emergencies, when things need to happen quickly and in a coordinated manner.  A could see ship life being grouped into that.  But what do you do when that leader is doing what you think is a terrible job?  To be honest, I don't know and it is something I have been working on after dabbling at both extremes.  I've stood there watching the leader confidently make a very dangerous choice that could have easily become deadly, yet managed to work out and left us with an epic experience.  I've jumped in an taken over command, overstepping my boundaries, ending in loud voices and a damaged friendship.  And these both within a few hours hike from the road.  Barrett portrays Erasmus' actions in this respect in a positive light.  She seems to praise his respect for the hierarchy of the ship and his persistence to guide and assist Zeke.  We are guided into honoring Erasmus for not stepping up until Zeke is gone and taking time to think through his decisions, in particular to leave the ship without Zeke.  Erasmus' sense of responsibility to take care of Zeke played a role in making Erasmus think of Zeke over himself and the crew at times, yet Barrett makes it seem alright, since he's doing it for his sister.  I'm not sure what to think about why Barrett chose to write it from Erasmus' point of view instead of Ned's.  I found it interesting, yet realistic, that Ned seemed to do a lot of the work to get the group ready to leave the boat, yet everyone still knew that Erasmus was the one to lead them on.