From Peaks to Polynesia, the Geography of Adventure

January 18, 2023

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Several of my articles have taken us into the skies, into outer space, and followed explorers all over the world. In nearly all of these endeavors, the goal was to collect data of various varieties and, of course, make maps of unexplored territory, whether the plants of the Amazon basin or the trenches in France during WWI or, in the case of aviation mapping, to make civilian air travel safer and military aviation more efficient. All of these expeditions were adventurous and led to new developments in mapping, commerce, science, and technology.

Some adventures, though, are taken for the adventure itself. In this article, we’ll discover some of the ways that mapping has been used to facilitate adventures. Of course, there is much overlap between exploration and adventure, and we’ll see plenty of examples in the following paragraphs.

Because it’s there!

That is what George Leigh Mallory said in 1924, before he attempted to summit Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. Nobody knows what he said when he returned, because he didn’t. Decades later his remains were found, as described in an article by Forbes. (Beware, it contains some morbid descriptions of corpse recovery.)

The difference between exploration and adventure is quite amorphous. When Humboldt and Lewis and Clark made their epic multi-year journeys, they were mapping and exploring, but also collecting data and making maps, and they were clearly adventurers as well. I’ve already written about Humboldt, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention John Wesley Powell, who was the first Euro-American to traverse the Colorado River from its headwaters through the Grand Canyon. The Utah Geological Survey has a short but interesting story map showing the original maps that Powell used to plan his journey.

To boldly go where no one has gone before.

For full disclosure, I am not only a dilettante adventurer but also a Trekkie, though I’ve never been in space nor to a Star Trek convention… yet. Many adventures were taken not only for practical purposes, like the ones mentioned above, but because nobody had taken them before. In 1869, Major Powell saw the Colorado River as a challenge to be met, and he and most of his crew survived. Powell had only one arm (the other was lost at the Battle of Shiloh in the Civil War) and used wooden dories to navigate the massive rapids of the yet undammed Colorado River.

Why did Amelia Earhart attempt to circumnavigate the globe in an airplane?

Why did Lindburgh fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean?

Why did Amundsen and Scott race each other to find the South Pole instead of collaborating? (One reason Amundsen and his Norwegians won: they ate their dogs when they became too weak to pull the sleds.) There are a number of great story maps and downloadable data describing these and other subsequent expeditions.

In all of these cases, the answer could be: it’s never been done before. Scott lost, and Amundsen won, by only a few days. Lindburgh made it, but Earhart didn’t.

It’s been done before, and it can be accomplished again.

In my article on exploration, I wrote about the famous Polynesian and Micronesian seafarers who used stick charts and celestial navigation to colonize the vast reaches of the South Pacific. This tradition still carries on after centuries. The David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University recently hosted an event called “The Role of Canoe Building and Celestial Navigation in the Micronesian Seafaring System,” featuring two traditional canoe builders and navigators from the Marshall Islands in Micronesia as keynote speakers.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnologist and adventurer, took a different route. Some anthropologists disagreed with the generally accepted theory that North America was colonized from the north, during the last ice age, over the Bering Land Bridge from north Asia. The various theories on who colonized where are far too complex to discuss here. Was it South America to the Pacific or vice versa? Either way, Heyerdahl wanted to prove that trans-Pacific travel with primitive technology was possible, and built the famous Kon-Tiki raft out of native materials found in Peru. He and his crew then sailed the raft across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia.

 While Heyerdahl’s theory has been largely discredited, his expedition was groundbreaking (or waterbreaking…?) in that it brought to light the incredible ability of humans to travel across the globe, and the ingenuity that so-called primitive societies had used for centuries, if not millennia.

There is no reward without risk, and no courage without vulnerability.

Not all adventures have a happy ending. I’m not sure who came up with those words, but I recite them every morning to get me moving. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Every day, do something that scares you.” Amelia Earhart knew this when she attempted to fly around the world and disappeared on July 2, 1937, somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean. Her last recorded transmission on that morning was, “We are on the line 157-337 flying north and south.” A Google map shows her route, though the last point is, of course, speculative.

Not all adventurers plan as well as Earhart, Lindbergh, Powell and the others mentioned above, and may not even think about the risks. While working at Crater Lake National Park as the GIS coordinator, one of my ancillary (and exciting) duties was search and rescue on the volunteer ski patrol. While helping a group of visitors unload their gear and giving them a safety briefing before they filled out their backcountry permit, I asked the standard questions, which included... Map? Compass? GPS? Yes, yes yes. They seemed physically fit and well-equipped, but when I glanced in their vehicle, I saw two empty Garmin boxes. They had just opened their GPS units and probably hadn’t turned them on yet. Fortunately they weren’t going far, and we didn’t have to go after them.

I had been a rescuer on several occasions, but then came the time when I was the rescuee, along with my two best friends, on a backcountry ski around the rim of Crater Lake. We knew that a blizzard was coming in, but foolishly decided to press on. We spent the night in an impromptu snow cave and had to be rescued by my comrades on the ski patrol, 13 miles out. It was obviously quite embarrassing, but later made for a good teaching topic. Live and learn. We had good maps and a trusty Garmin 60CSx, we were in great shape, and we knew how to use our navigation tools. None of that, however, can counter poor judgment and group-think.

Many similar examples of poor judgment can be found if you search “death by GPS.” Some are funny and have happy endings, as embarrassing as my ski misadventure, but others are heartbreaking. As I have expounded in several previous articles, there is no substitute for a good paper map and knowing how to use it. The Guardian has an excellent article on the subject, tying in to how the human brain changes when relying on digital technology.

In my 12 years at Crater Lake, we had only three fatalities and only a dozen or so search and rescue incidents. My brother worked at Grand Canyon National Park for several years, and I had the opportunity to visit many times. Search and rescue was a daily operation there, and there were several fatalities almost every year. Keep in mind that Grand Canyon National Park hosts around 5 million visitors per year, and at Crater Lake, we get about 300,000, mostly in the summer.

An interactive map shows the many fatalities in this glorious but dangerous place, symbolized by type of death (drowning, heatstroke, airplane crash, etc.), and a click on any point will reveal the details. It serves as a reminder that this is nature’s place, not ours, and that the Grand Canyon doesn’t follow our rules; it makes them, and they are immutable.

The thrill of adventure never ends.

Let’s wrap up on a happy note. Ski resorts use GIS and GPS for rescues, but also for practical purposes, such as preparation, snowmaking or day-to-day operations. Several states have downloadable data sets, including Colorado and Utah.

Every paradise has its price, and adventure is where you find it, whether on a mountain summit or looking for insects in a BioBlitz. Adventures aren’t always fun while they are happening, but if we survive them, they always make for great stories. The motto for the Crater Lake Ski Patrol is “Ski safely, have fun!” Sometimes that is easier said than done, as I learned the hard way.


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