Best adventure books and documentaries

You can’t spend every minute outdoors, but that doesn’t mean your relaxation time can’t still be exciting
By Australian Geographic Adventure staff April 7, 2015 Reading Time: 8 Minutes Print this page

Touching the Void

BOOK: Joe Simpson (1989)

An incredible TRUE story, this climbing classic is a no-brainer for inclusion on this list – it has all the adventure, emotion and heart-stopping moments you could want in a Hollywood thriller.

From its (relatively) benign opening pages, where Simpson recounts the highs and lows of climbing in one of the world’s most remote mountain ranges in Peru’s Andes, the book hooks the reader. The crux of the story – the moment where Simpson’s climbing partner, Simon Yates, believes the only way to save himself from joining his presumed-dead partner, hanging unseen at the end of a climbing rope, is to cut the rope connecting the two – has to be read again and again.

What happens after this point is something no scriptwriter could conjure up: Simpson survives the fall into the crevasse then, amazingly, crawls deeper into it before dragging himself all the way back to basecamp three-days later, where a shocked Yates initially thinks he’s hallucinating and seeing a ghost.

The book delivers on both sides of the story – it goes inside Simpson’s mind to reveal his indestructible will to survive, while also reliving Yates’ concurrent thoughts of initial guilt and then resignation. And, of course, it asks the reader to answer that same question: what would you do?

First Overland

DOCUMENTARY: 2013

What do you do if you’re a group of penniless university students from Oxford and Cambridge universities who have hatched a crazy plan for an overland vehicular adventure, from London to Singapore, through some of the planet’s most inaccessible country, and wish to document it?

Well, you approach a young BBC employee with the surname of Attenborough, first name David, who convinces his employer to supply film (although only a limited supply initially, pending what early footage looked like) and a 16mm wind-up camera. Land Rover also came on board, supplying two vehicles, and the students raised the rest of the funds via around 70 companies.

The First Overland Expedition: London-Singapore, is one of the last “great British adventures” undertaken when the British Empire was still close to its full power. The footage was originally broadcast in three short black and white segments, but has been remastered in its original colour for DVD. The doco offers a fantastic view of what are now some of the world’s most inaccessible roads, including the Ledo Road from India to Myanmar (which is still closed to this day).

The doco includes interviews with the remaining expedition members, and Sir David Attenborough. A real Boy’s Own adventure.

Valley Uprising

DOCUMENTARY: 2014

A just-released climbing film from the best in the business – Sender Films – this doco traces the history of Yosemite National Park’s often volatile and always exciting climbing scene. From the late 1950s, when Royal Robbins and Warren Harding challenged each other and traded first ascents of such famous peaks as Half Dome and El Capitan, through the wild ’60s and ’70s when free climbing came into vogue and the “dirtbag” climber lifestyle defined itself, and then onto today’s equally ambitious climbers, the film mixes archival and recent footage with interviews to offer a fantastic insight to the Yosemite climbing scene.

Included are the climbers’ often violent clashes with park authorities, which started in the 1950s and, although less so, are still not uncommon today as the authorities crack down on the more extreme edge of climbing (B.A.S.E. jumping) and limit the amount of time climbers can camp in Yosemite.

With a mix of climbers to interview, including Yvon Chouinard, Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, plus the real story behind some of the longstanding rivalries (think: Robbins and Harding), the film leaves no fact or fanciful story untold. The climbing feats are amazing; the footage Sender Films has compiled is even more so.

Into Africa

BOOK: Martin Dugard (2004)

It must have been the dream assignment for a journalist: head into the deepest, most wild and remote part of Africa and find a long-missing (presumed dead) explorer. For Henry Morton Stanley, it was the job of a lifetime; for his employer – the New York Herald – the famous words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” would encapsulate the story of the decade.

It is, of course, a well-known and famous moment in exploratory history but the difference with this book is that author Martin Dugard delves far deeper, using a combination of unpublished diaries, Royal Geographical Society diaries and even a number of visits to various locations relevant to the tale, to produce a cracking read.

The author’s swapping of viewpoints between Livingstone and Stanley throughout the book keeps the pace fast and also reveals the incredible differences between the two men, and how each one reacted to the myriad obstacles they faced, from being stuck in the middle of intertribal wars, through to the constant fear of – and battle with – the multitude of diseases that were rife on the continent. The Livingstone-Stanley story has been nearly done to death, but Dugard makes it all seem fresh, and bloody exciting.

The Summit

DOCUMENTARY: 2013

When it comes to dangerous mountains, few compare to K2, the world’s second highest, and arguably second deadliest (with a ratio of one death in four climbers). In 2008 one of the mountain’s worst climbing disasters took place, with 11 climbers killed on the descent following a series of avalanches.

The Summit uses recreations, actual footage taken during the descent and rescue operations, along with interviews with the survivors, to weave a tale that places the viewer firmly on the mountain. It shows just how difficult it is to make decisions at such heights, such as whether to rescue yourself or try, often in vain and with fatal consequences, to help those in difficulty.

Director Nick Ryan does a great job of recreating the sense of dread K2 imposes on all who climb it; the footage itself, and the soundtrack of howling winds, create an unforgettable atmosphere. The futility of the rescue attempts – amid the continued threat of more avalanches – are hard to watch (knowing the end story) but even harder to ignore. This is a film that captures the desperation and bravery of survivors risking their lives to help save fellow climbers. It’s gripping stuff and a great achievement in trying to put the many rumours surrounding this climbing disaster to rest.

Touching the Void

DOCUMENTARY: 2003

The only adventure tale that makes a dual appearance here and with good reason: the documentary’s source, the incredible tale of climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and the former’s amazing survival of a climb gone seriously wrong, is a truly memorable tale of survival, and the life-and-death decisions that have to be made in split seconds.

In the transition from book to film this story has lost none of its impact; thankfully director Kevin Macdonald has retained the essence of Simpson’s book to create a documentary that is equally amazing for its cinematography as it is for the intensity of the interviews that are entwined throughout the film.

The climbing scenes were accurately recreated by a trio of actors, as well as by Yates and Simpson for some scenes in Peru. As the two climbers (and the third party member Richard Hawking) relive their experiences in the Cordillera Huayhuash range, the different emotions on show from each interviewee make for riveting viewing.

There are few documentaries that recapture the immediacy and urgency of past events as well as this one, proved by the film’s many plaudits including the prestigious Best Film gong at the 2004 BAFTA awards.

Home of the Blizzard

BOOK: Douglas Mawson (1915)

Just another member of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition when it arrived Antarctica in early 1912, Mawson left Antarctica one of the most famous living explorers on the planet. Although the book recounts Mawson’s entire time on Antarctica, it is the near-disastrous journey across King George Land in the summer of 1912/13 that secure this title’s place on the list.

Mawson was leading a team comprising himself and two others (Englishman Belgrave Ninnis and Swiss Xavier Mertz) that tragedy struck: Ninnis and most of the team’s food and sled dogs disappeared down a crevasse. With little food, Mawson and Mertz had to eat their dogs as they strove to return to base camp. Mertz died but Mawson made it back 30 days later, only to watch the expedition ship Aurora leaving camp on its way back to Hobart. He spent the following winter at the AAE basecamp before rescue arrived the following summer.

Mawson’s book is wordy but engaging, as this quote demonstrates: “We dwelt on the fringe of an unspanned continent, where the chill breath of a vast polar wilderness, quickening to the rushing might of eternal blizzards, surged to the northern seas. We had discovered an accursed country. We had found the home of the blizzard.” Epic stuff. 

Miracle on Everest

DOCUMENTARY: 2008

Aussie mountaineer (and former Outdoor editor) the late Lincoln Hall had two attempts at the summit of Mt Everest – the first, in 1984, was as part of the first Australian team to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain (Hall did not reach the summit). The second, equally as memorable, was Hall’s 2006 attempt to make the summit, supporting young Aussie Christopher Harris.

It wasn’t the Harris attempt (which didn’t succeed) that focused the world’s attention on Hall. Coming down from the summit, Hall began suffering from severe altitude sickness, with the end result being a very near-death experience for the then 50-year-old. After Sherpas could not convince him to keep moving, and then Hall’s collapsing and being declared dead, the climber then spent a night in the “death zone” above 8000m before being discovered, dishevelled and half out of his gear on a cliff-edge, by American mountain guide, Dan Mazur, and his two clients.

Hall’s first words to Mazur: “I imagine you’re surprised to see me here” have since become part of Everest folklore. The documentary recreates the climb accurately, and the interviews of all the participants will keep you shaking your head at the combination of sheer luck and the selflessness of three men high on a mountain.

River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

BOOK: Candice Millard (2005)

Most ex-politicians, once ousted from power, resign themselves to a life of privilege. For former US president, Theodore Roosevelt, this was never going to happen. Instead, in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on a first descent of a long (more than 640km) unmapped tributary of the Amazon River known as the Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt. This was the Amazon of piranha-filled waterways, immense rapids and hostile local tribes.

Millard uses access to Roosevelt’s notes – and those of fellow team members, including co-leader and legendary Spanish explorer Cândido Rondo – to conjure in the reader a sense of being on the river with the men.

The story is a rollicking one, with the river asking a terrible price of both canoes (often the team was building new ones to replace those destroyed by the river’s unforgiving rapids) and expedition members.

The hoped-for brevity of wild game for food did not eventuate, leaving starvation and disease a constant threat. There was a murder midway down the river, and Roosevelt nearly succumbed to a leg infection, while his son, Kermit, contracted malaria. Yep, the result is a story that – to use a cliché – really does not let the reader go until river’s end.

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

DOCUMENTARY: 2001

A fantastic doco by director George Butler, this uses historical footage from Frank Hurley (the original expedition photographer for Shackleton’s 1914 expedition) and a mix of modern footage of the white continent to tell this famous story of survival.

Shackleton and his crew (27 members, all of whom survived) spent 10 cold, lonely months trapped in pack ice. Then, the famous British explorer decided to put his skills to the ultimate test and set off in a small lifeboat with five other crew members on an 800 nautical mile journey to try and find help from the whaling stations on surrounding islands.

The documentary’s combination of the silent (but still dramatic) archival footage and photographs, Liam Neeson’s Irish brogue as narration, and interviews with descendants of the survivors works well together to deliver a sense of high adventure. In those days of Antarctic expeditions going seriously wrong, with multiple deaths and disasters the norm, Shackleton’s excellent leadership skills and sheer toughness shone through to ensure a successful rescue attempt for he and his crew. This film does a great job of recounting one of the world’s best survival stories.