Outdoor books of the year: Going boldly, with exercise thrown in

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IN The Natural Explorer, (Sceptre, £16.99) the follow-up to his acclaimed debut The Natural Navigator, published in March, Tristan Gooley draws an important distinction between explorers and adventurers – two distinct types who have become increasingly confused in recent years, not only in the field of professional gung-ho-ism, but also on bookshop shelves.

Explorers, he writes, make discoveries and communicate these discoveries to others; adventurers merely “punish themselves by exercising in remote places”.

Gooley is perhaps a little harsh on today’s adventurers – they may not provide us with anything of obvious utilitarian value, but their exploits can at least serve to inspire in the same way as art and literature. Still, his distinction is an interesting one and, when applied to the rest of this year’s “exploration and adventure” writing, an illuminating one to boot.

Exhibit A: The Ice Balloon, (Fourth Estate, £14.99) by Alec Wilkinson, published in February. In taking as his subject the Swedish aeronaut Salomon August Andrée, who attempted to fly a hot air balloon to the North Pole in 1897, Wilkinson is certainly writing about an explorer: had Andrée and his two companions made it to the Pole, they would have been the first people to see it. Unfortunately, for all its elegant prose, Wilkinson’s account doesn’t give us much more insight into its leading man than a Wikipedia entry; in literary terms, the author is an adventurer along for the purple-prose ride rather than an explorer looking to break new ground.

The opposite can be said of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, (Hamish Hamilton, £20)published in June, the third instalment in his “loose trilogy of books about landscape and the human heart” that began with Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. The ancient routes the author follows have been walked (and sailed) countless times before. But while Macfarlane is a mere adventurer in physical terms, he is every bit the intellectual explorer, bringing fresh insights to practically everything he sees. Like his notional travelling companion, the war poet Edward Thomas, he is particularly good on the links between thinking and walking, and is clearly delighted by the fact that the verb “to learn” has its root in the Old English “leornian,” meaning “to get knowledge” which is in turn derived from the Proto- Germanic “liznojan” meaning “to follow or to find a track”.

Like Macfarlane, the poet and author Jean Sprackland is an adventurer in physical terms, and not a very adventurous one. Her book, Strands, (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) published in May, is an account of a year spent beachcombing on Ainsdale Sands, an easily-accessible nature reserve on the coast between Liverpool and Blackpool. But, more even than Macfarlane, she brings a brilliantly inquisitive, exploratory mind to her task, researching the variety of objects she finds washed up on this unromantic stretch of beach with all the vigour of an investigative journalist. Stumbling upon a china tea cup the morning after a storm, for example, she visits the archives of the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and is able to determine that it was once used aboard one of Cunard’s flagships, either the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth.

As a professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, doing research in Antarctica as you read this, Chris Turney is one of very few people today who could genuinely be classed as an explorer by Gooley’s definition. Not only that, the book he published in September achieved the rare double-whammy of being both about exploration and written in a probing, exploratory way.

In 1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica, (Random House, £20) Turney sets out to do two things: first, highlight the fact that Scott and Amundsen were by no means the only people exploring Antarctica that year; and second, show that most of that year’s expeditions were primarily scientific endeavours, and that the race to the Pole, in spite of everything that has been written about it since, was little more than a sideshow.

As well as casting the Scott-Amundsen rivalry in a completely new light (Gooley would have recognised the former as an explorer, the latter as an adventurer), Turney also unearths documents that appear to show a cover-up in the way the demise of Scott’s Polar party was reported. It seems the food depots Scott’s team relied on during their return journey had been depleted by one of the support parties and that attempts were made to keep this secret in order to avoid a scandal.

Whatever Turney goes on to achieve in his career as a scientist, it is perhaps for this single historical discovery that he will be best remembered.