Adventure Literature Reading List

Lee’s Recommendations of Adventure Literature Books for Teaching Leadership

Alexander, Caroline (1999). The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. 
New York: Knopf.

This work, complete with stunning photographs, chronicles the amazing journey of Shackleton’s 1914-1916 expedition. Everything goes wrong, and their marvelous wooden ship, The Endurance, is crushed by ice, leaving the 28 men stranded in the Antarctic winter. The book is gripping reading, thanks to numerous excerpts from crewmembers’ diaries that detail the harrowing water and ice-crossings they had to make as well as Shackleton’s remarkable leadership in the face of unimaginable adversity. Supposedly this book will become a movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen. The video “South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition” (88 minutes) is available from, as is “The Life and Works of Frank Hurley,” the photographer who chronicled the expedition (and several others) with stunning and courageous camera work.

Blum, Arlene (1980, 1998). Annapurna: A Woman’s Place. 
San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

In 1978, 13 women climbed Annapurna, becoming the first American team to summit this Himalayan mountain. The book and video (available from tell the story of the planning and the climb, and profile the team members. It’s hard to imagine a better book/video for demonstrating the difference in leadership and group dynamics among a team of women compared to a team of men or mostly men (see the various “death on Everest” books and videos. 

Boukreev, Anatoli & DeWalt, G. Weston (1998). The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. 
New York: St. Martins Press.

Boukreev was Scott Fischer’s lead guide on the ill-fated Everest expedition chronicled by Krakauer. “Into Thin Air” pillories Boukreev for his selfishness and lack of professionalism. “The Climb” is Boukreev’s answer to Krakauer’s charges (actually, it was written primarily by DeWalt but includes extensive translated transcripts from Boukreev). It exposes much of Krakauer’s mistakes and misconceptions, and, not surprisingly, not only exonerates Boukreev but depicts him as a hero who singlehandedly saved a number of team members. What makes Boukreev’s account more powerful, though, is the supporting documentation by climbers of international renown who have challenged Krakauer’s account but been ignored by the popular press because they lack his storytelling abilities. This book is much more technical and slow than Krakauer’s, but offers an excellent example of “the other side,” a critical lesson for leaders and followers to learn. 

Curran, Jim (1987). K2: Triumph and Tragedy. 
Mariner Books.

In 1986, thirteen people died while attempting to summit K2, the second highest (but the most difficult to climb) mountain on Earth. This is an interesting tale of different expeditions, some well-supported, others sparse, some led by talented guides, others led by over-ambitious dilettantes. K2 is a particularly unforgiving mountain, and some of those who died were experienced climbers. A fascinating angle explored in this book is the idea of “summit fever,” pursuing the summit against one’s better judgment. Curran also does a nice job explaining the physiological hazards of climate and altitude, and the impact of those hazards on judgment and group cohesion. There are a number of books about this particularly awful season on K2. This one is an easy and interesting read, written by someone who had no plans to summit, but was there to see the results of those plans for others.

Greenlaw, Linda (1999). The Hungry Ocean. 
New York: Hyperion.

This is written by a swordboat captain who has had her fifteen minutes of fame due to The Perfect Storm, in which Junger calls her one of the best captains in America. She should keep her day job. While the work of a swordboat captain is both interesting, and grueling, the book itself is a little lacking in drama. But it’s one of the few examples of women in significant leadership roles in the outdoors, and Greenlaw’s leadership of her crew is interesting. She’s no feminist, however, at least as far as one can tell from her prose, and seems to prefer downplaying the fact that she’s the only woman out there in the Atlantic fleet. But a reader will certainly learn a lot about fishing. 

Herzog, Maurice (1952). Annapurna.
Lyons Press.

Herzog’s tale is one of the classics of mountain adventure literature. Dictated from a hospital where he was recovering from frostbite (he lost fingers and toes), Herzog recounts the first ascent of an 8000 meter peak. The writing is a bit stuffy, and Herzog is quite impressed with himself (and doesn’t share much about his teammates, among whom were Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, among the best of the famous Chamonix-based climbers), but this is the book that inspired many of the great climbers of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. An interesting analysis of the book and the ascent was written by David Roberts in 2000 (see below), and a pairing of these books is a great exercise in perspective, teamwork, and how the person who writes the history is the one who controls it. 

Jackson, Monica & Stark, Elizabeth (1956). Tents in the Clouds: The First Women’s Himalayan Expedition.

This marvelous book was reissued in 2000 by Seal Press Feminist Publishers. In 1955, Jackson, Stark, and Evelyn Canrass ventured into an uncharted section of the Jugal Himal and scaled never-before-climbed peaks in the 22,000-foot range. In the grand scale of mountain climbing, especially in the Himalaya, it was an impressive, but not incredible feat, except that these were three women climbing without much of the equipment and support then available to men. What makes this book remarkable, though, is a comparison to similar books of men’s exploits. It is written in a style that can only be called “gracious,” with kind and compassionate (though occasionally frustrated) references to their Sherpas, with warmth and respect for one another, and with an appreciation of and respect for the beauty and danger of the mountains. There is no “conquering” going on here, just a pure joy of achievement and a profound love for the sport and the mountains. A reading of this book after any of the others listed here (especially Roskelley’s) will provide an excellent example of the different approach women might bring to the leadership of a climbing expedition.

Huntford, Roland (1979, 1999). The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole. 
New York: Random House.

This book was originally published in 1979 and Huntford was pilloried by the British public for his portrayal of British hero Robert Scott. This edition, part of the Modern Library’s Exploration Series (edited by Jon Krakauer), shows why. Scott and Roald Amundsen of Norway could not have been more dissimilar in their leadership styles, and Huntford pulls no punches in portraying Scott as an ill-prepared, selfish, self-interested, overly-ambitious man unfit for command. Amundsen, meanwhile, is almost canonized for his purity and leadership skill. But despite the one-sidedness (which may be well-deserved—who really knows for sure?), the book is a fascinating comparison of two men with the same goal, one who succeeds and one who fails miserably. As an example of hubris versus humility, a better book would be hard to find. And, if after reading this, one feels badly that the British have been so thoroughly admonished for their arrogance and unwillingness to learn from experience, one can simply read The Endurance and at least feel good about the Irish explorer Shackleton. 

Junger, Sebastian (1997). The Perfect Storm. 
New York: Norton and Co.

A bestseller and then a movie, this book is a good example of the competing priorities leaders often face. The captain of the Andrea Gail chose to continue fishing rather than heed storm warnings because his crew needed the money they would earn. His calculated risk, as everyone knows, ended in disaster with the loss of the ship and all hands. 

Kinder, Gary (1998). Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea.
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

A well-written and thoroughly researched book, this work chronicles the efforts of Tommy Thompson, who over the course of ten years, discovered and then salvaged a deep-sea wreck, the Central America. This book reads like a detective novel with plenty of intrigue and occasional humor, but mostly serves to highlight the phenomenal commitment and vision of Thompson, an engineer who helped create the technology necessary for a recovery in 8000 feet of water. Thompson is an unconventional leader, an “outside-the-box” thinker of the first order, humble, unassuming and completely driven.

Krakauer, Jon (1990). Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains. 

This is a collection of Krakauer’s best magazine writing, and shows a variety of angles of mountaineering, from the naïve kid (Krakauer himself) to the glacier pilots that deposit climbers at the base of Denali. I especially like “Gill,” a portrait of the fascinating man who “invented” bouldering, which introduces some intriguing ideas about vision, passion and the true mental skills needed to lead, and “The Devil’s Thumb,” a tale of Krakauer’s poorly-planned but ultimately successful venture into the Alaskan wilderness, which teaches, among other things, the valuable lesson of not getting stoned in a tent when you are planning on lighting a stove. Students will relate to the young Krakauer chucking it all to pursue a dream (and returning to it all when he realizes the limits of his dreams).

Krakauer, Jon (1996). Into the Wild. 
New York: Anchor Books.

This is not really a “leadership” study, but I include it because so many students have related to its themes. It’s the story of a recent college graduate named Chris McCandless who takes a post-college journey that ends with his death in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer never knew him, but does an excellent job re-creating his brief life and speculating on his last few months. Students find McCandless’ “search for himself” compelling, and learn a lot about nature and human nature from the well-written personal tales Krakauer shares. 

Krakauer, Jon (1997). Into Thin Air. 
New York: Villard.

This bestselling book, also made into a movie, tells a story well-known by now: Incredible hubris of unprepared climbers and their guides who ignore conventional mountain-climbing wisdom and suffer terribly. Very well-written and accessible, the book is useful for illustrating the dangers of ignoring intuition and experience, of pushing people past their limits, of succumbing to greed (guides felt compelled to get their high-paying climbers to the summit), and of both selfishness and selflessness in the face of danger. Several good videos related to Everest and other mountain climbs are available from

Lundy, Derek (1999). Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World’s Most Dangerous Waters. 
Chapel Hill: Algonquin Press.

The story of the 1996-97 Vendée Globe sailboat race, which requires racers to sail through the Southern Ocean, considered the most dangerous water on the planet, during the four-to –six month adventure. “Around Alone” sailors are a curious lot—risk-takers, arrogant to a point (but respectful of the sea), loners (obviously), and capable of surprising loyalty to their fellow sailors. One of the book’s most dramatic moments involves a harrowing rescue of one sailor by another. The race involves two women, one of whom is among the world’s best single-handed sailors, and includes thoughtful observations of how the nationalities of these sailors profoundly influences their commitment to the sea. Readers will learn a lot about sailing, and are likely to start paying attention to those brief mentions of this and similar races hidden on sports pages.

Mazel, David (1994). Mountaineering Women: Stories by Early Climbers. 
College Station: Texas A & M Press.

These stories go back to 1850 when Mrs. Henry Warwick Cole (her first name is lost to the ages, unfortunately) climbed the Aeggischhorn and attempted the Pic de Grivola in the Alps. The introduction to the book has some interesting insights on the style of climbing women brought to the sport, as well as the sexism they faced from male climbers. Most of the text beyond the introduction is first person, and includes Gwen Moffatt’s observations on being the first woman guide (mostly in England, Scotland and Wales). The notion of the “cordeé féminine,” which is a good metaphor for women’s leadership, is discussed. In general, this is a pretty eye-opening book for anyone who thinks men were alone in scaling peaks during the past 150 years.

Messner, Reinhold (2001). Moving Mountains: Lessons on Life and Leadership.
Executive Excellence Publishing.

As you can tell from the publisher’s name, this is a book for those couch potatoes who want to get the lessons without putting life and limb at risk. I can support that. Messner is The Man when it comes to mountain climbing. The first climb of Everest sans oxygen, the first ever to climb all fourteen 8000-meter peaks, Messner is a legend among legends, and his disdain for adventurer wannabes is obvious. “An organized adventure,” he says, “is an oxymoron.” The book is clearly written and organized well, and is a good addition to the tell-us-what-the-lesson-is genre (see Morrell, below). The lessons are a bit trite, like “invest in what you do best,” but Messner’s backdrop of a life makes them compelling.

Morrell, Margot and Stephanie Capparell (2001). Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer.

Caroline Alexander’s rendition of Shackleton’s misadventures provide plenty of material for discussions of leadership, but for those of us who need an outline to follow (and you know who you are), several books have been written that organize the lessons neatly. This is the best one—clearly written and an accurate rendering of the actual events.

Roberts, David (2000). True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna.
Simon and Schuster.

As mentioned above, Herzog’s Annapurna was the first widely-read epic tale of man against mountain (and in Herzog’s account, one might think it was one man). Roberts was one of many climbers who read the book in his youth and was inspired to pursue mountain-climbing himself. This book, a deconstruction of Herzog’s account, is the result of thorough research about this well-known climb, including excerpts from interviews with the widows of the other climbers (Herzog is the only one still alive). Roberts takes the sheen off his hero, but gosh, it was still a pretty amazing feat. One important thing this book does, though, is give credit to Rebuffát, Terray, and Lachenal, the finest climbers of their time. 

Roskelley, John (1987, 2000). Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition.
Mountaineers Press.

Roskelley is one of the great Egos of mountaineering, and he doesn’t hide this in his account of a 1976 expedition to Nanda Devi, a Himalayan peak. The expedition was co-organized by the great climber Willi Unsoeld, and included his 19-year old daughter, Devi (named for the mountain). Her desire to climb this mountain, as well as an incredible amount of infighting among team members, ultimately led to some truly poor decisions which cost Devi her life. This is a sad and fascinating study in broken leadership, in misplaced goals, and in the pure ego, conceit and rivalry that drives many of the world’s elite climbers.

Simpson, Joe (1988). Touching the Void: The Harrowing First Person Account of One Man’s Miraculous Survival.
Harper and Row.

Yikes. Even those who are inured to the drama of adventure literature are bound to be captivated by this tale of the author, who, injured in a fall high in the Andes, was left by his unwitting companion who thought him dead. Somehow Simpson crawls out of a crevasse, and despite a broken leg and frostbite, manages to drag himself for three days until he reaches camp. His companion, needless to say, was pleased to see him. It’s fun to read, because you know he survives, and because Simpson is quite a talented writer who plumbs the depths of his brain for the mental strength needed to do this. 

Teal, Louise (1994). Breaking into the Current: Boatwomen of the Grand Canyon.
Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

The author has interviewed 12 women who have made careers out of guiding the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. There’s not much explicit discussion of women and leadership, but it’s interesting to read about and consider the sexism and hardship these women faced in pursuing their dream. Like most river guides, these are some great “characters,” and are inspiring for women trying to break into a male-dominated profession.