At the time I’m writing this post, I’m in the middle of reading Valerian Albanov’s true-life survival story, In the Land of White Death. This cheery tale describes the mostly-fatal adventures of a group of sailors and hunters in the Arctic in 1914. After their ship was locked in ice for more than a year, they decided to leave the ship and try to make their way, via hand-made sleighs and hand-made kayaks and with minimal gear, across sea ice and open water to the nearest land. Did I mention they had only the most rudimentary maps and navigational aids, so they were never certain exactly where they were and which of the local islands really existed, and which were just explorers’ rumors?
Suffering from scurvy and snow blindness, infested with lice, they have just come within sight of land, only to find a big old glacier blocking their way.
Yeah, good times.
I am an armchair explorer because, as gripping as such stories are, I have no desire to experience them for myself. I have lived vicariously through Himalayan mountain climbs and Himalayan disasters (Jim Curran’s K2: Triumph and Tragedy and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air). I read about such things, but I keep my own true-life hikes on a smaller scale.
I will never know the thrill of reaching the North Pole or the summit of Everest, but neither will I lose my hands to frostbite, nor my companions to avalanche, hypoxia, or an overdose of polar-bear liver. Now I am trudging and paddling through a frigid wilderness, but I can shut Albanov’s book any time I want and raid a well-stocked refrigerator. In the Land of White Death reminds me to be grateful for things I currently take for granted: central heating, warm clothes, a full pantry, vermin-free clothes and bedding, fresh water at the turn of a faucet handle.