The best books about exploration, endurance, and world expeditions

The Books I Picked & Why

Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

By David Roberts

Book cover of Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

Why this book?

If you like books about epic expeditions, along the lines of Shackleton's Endurance, when the grand explorers of the early twentieth century had yet to reach the most remote regions of the world—books filled with more danger than fiction authors could imagine for a plot—tales of endless grit and survival—then you’ll love Alone on the Ice.

Combining his mountaineering expertise with his writing talent, author David Roberts brings you along with Douglas Mawson and his entire crew on the most incredible polar expedition, a complex story that involves sub-stories about other explorers and expeditions. (Mawson was a crew member on one of Shackleton’s early expeditions who almost reached the South Pole.) Unpacking the details takes a little time, but once you get acquainted with all these incredible people, you won’t put the book down. We modern adventure-seekers have a lot to learn from these pioneers. 

A gripping story as real as it gets.

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

By Christopher McDougall

Book cover of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Why this book?

When an ultra-running friend gave me the Born to Run audiobook, I thought, Not another running book! Running is trendy, and it seems that new (and often boring) running books pop up like mushrooms. Apart from Dean Karnazes’s excellent Ultramarathon Man, there is only just so much you can read about running without overdosing. And I have nothing against running; it saved my life. I ran my first marathon at 16 and my first ultra at 17 before focusing on mountaineering and world expeditions. I’ve been an extreme endurance athlete my entire life and I’m still a competitive ultra-cyclist in my fifties. But I hate to admit that I didn’t listen to the audiobook. Years later, when I published Dancing with Death, I noticed that Born to Run was always at the top of the many categories in which my book competed, including Extreme Sport, Central American Travel, and Inspirational books. So I started listening to the audiobook. 

Oh my. I was hooked! I wanted to slap myself for having dismissed such a brilliant memoir. I even bought the paperback to refer to. Masterfully written by Christopher McDougall, Born to Run takes you for a ride as you enter into not only the world of ultra-runners and endurance athletes but also the beautiful culture of the Tarahumara. 

You don’t need to be a runner or running fan to engage with the emotional voyage in this book. Guided by the author’s sensitivity, you’ll journey into the life and culture of one of the last traditional Indigenous communities. Enlightening and inspirational, Born to Run is a MUST READ for all those who appreciate that real-life stories can be much better than any fiction. It’s real, it’s amazing, it’s beautiful. Read it! 

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Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival

By Joe Simpson

Book cover of Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival

Why this book?

There is no traveling without getting lost. There is no adventure without taking risks. There is no mountaineering without danger. 

Until the early twentieth century, expeditions were mostly driven by the discovery of the last unreached regions of the planet, particularly the North and South Poles. This led to incredible sea adventures along the lines of Shackleton’s expeditions.  After the entire planet was mapped and claimed, adventurers raced toward unclimbed mountaintops. Mountaineering adventures became the modern-day explorations: Annapurna, Everest, K2, and all the mountains and climbing routes that remained to be named and conquered. Many expeditions had their tragic moments, but very few were penned by those who had made it through their harrowing experiences. Joe Simpson is one such survivor, taking you on a journey of discovery far beyond the stunning mountains of the Peruvian Andes. 

You will live every moment as if you were the one left for dead with broken bones and no way out of the bottom of that crevice. The physical pain will resonate in all your cells. You will fight your greatest fear, touch the void, and face your own mortality, discovering the phenomenal power of the human spirit within you. When you understand what it means to be alive, you will transform. More than a mountaineering book, Touching the Void is an epitaph to life. Joe Simpson died on that mountain, for he was reborn a new man. A gut-wrenching inspirational read not only for adventurers.

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

By Douglas Preston

Book cover of The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

Why this book?

Here’s another famous writer joining an expensive sponsored expedition in the name of science. I often feel that real adventurers don’t get enough of the spotlight; instead, we’re served dull (and often fake) epic adventures just because they’re backed by huge funds and a celebrity. 

I probably wouldn’t have read The Lost City of the Monkey God if it weren’t for my Canadian friend and cartographer Derek Parent, who was a consultant on the book and advisor for my own expedition. He highly recommended me to read it, and I’m so pleased I did. 

Of course, you’d expect beautiful prose from acclaimed writer Douglas Preston. What I didn’t expect was that he would take me on an emotional voyage and make me re-live the nine months I spent exploring the Honduran jungle of La Moskitia sixteen years before him as part of a three-year expedition I narrated in my award-winning adventure-travel memoir Dancing with Death

The author isn’t only good with words, he has a genuine explorer-adventurer spirit that infuses his writing. Where I describe the beauty of the local Pech culture, Preston’s tale will give you goosebumps about all the dangers of the rainforest they inhabit. A superbly crafted narration, more gripping and epic than Indiana Jones and Lara Craft’s adventures combined, for this is all real. In an era when we thought there was no exploration and discovery left to be experienced, The Lost City of the Monkey God proves us wrong.

Preston will make you live as if you were an explorer on the team, discovering one of the last world wonders from an ancient civilization and suffering all its consequences. Exploration and Adventure, Ancient Culture, Science, Endless Dangers, and a masterly crafted tale make this an epic read you won’t be able to put down. Be warned, though: If you ever thought about visiting the Honduran jungle, this book might make even the most optimistic adventurer think twice. Yet you can’t travel to any tropical destination without reading it. An essential MUST READ! I think that The Lost City of the Monkey God and Dancing with Death were meant to be read as a pair. 

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Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak

By Maurice Herzog

Book cover of Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak

Why this book?

Without Annapurna, I would have never climbed a mountain. It not only inspired my childhood but all the mountaineers who followed in author Maurice Herzog’s footsteps. Herzog was also a captain of the 27th BCA during World War II, the mountain battalion where I served as a Special Forces Mountain Commando in the 1980s—but that’s not why I picked this book. I can’t think of a better way to describe it than to quote my own memoir, I, Tarzan: Against All Odds:

It was a time before the modern mountaineering climbs masterfully described by Jon Krakauer and Joe Simpson. It was a time when Heinrich Harrer’s books were not yet translated into French. It was a time when large-scale commercial climbing had not yet become the norm. It was a time when mountaineering defined the essence of adventure. I couldn’t stop reading about it [mountaineering]. Even though I never had the chance to climb, I was climbing daily in my imaginary world.”

Annapurna isn’t only about mountaineering and grand adventures. It’s a beautiful book about the human spirit and life and death. It’s a story that transcends time without ever aging. Annapurna was one of the first mountaineering books (along with Roger Frison-Roche’s First on the Rope) that inspired my entire life, and I can’t recommend it enough. 

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