Edited by George Plimpton
I once had the pleasure of spending Christmas week in a stately house in Shropshire, just across the border from Wales. Though milady, the mother of a friend and my hostess, was a bit daft and the house a bit drafty, I’ve never enjoyed a Christmas more. Each morning I awoke to find my breakfast was set out on a table by the window, with a lidded silver salver covering boiled eggs, country ham, scones and other famously good reasons for getting out of bed on a cold English day.
I was reminded of these happy moments upon opening the book As Told At The Explorers Club. I felt sure that under the cover I’d find one delight after another, my anticipation buoyed by the line “Edited and with an Introduction by George Plimpton.” Both an engaging writer (Paper Lion) and a first-class editor (and a member of the club), the legendary Plimpton—who, alas, died this past September—knew a fine yarn when he heard one. In this, one of his last gifts to readers, he does not disappoint.
The Plimptonian aura—and a touch of 19th-century salesmanship—is expressed right away in its subtitle: “More Than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure,” since the book presents exactly 51 stories. And the slightly arcane term “gripping tales” has a similarly old-fashioned ring. Indeed, even the term “adventure” bears examination. For while many of the tales do recount astonishing adventures, the word itself rarely, if ever, appears. It is noteworthy that the venerable institution, housed since 1965 in a Tudor-style mansion on East 70th Street in Manhattan, is known as the Explorers Club, not the Adventurers Club. Whatever risks members of the club may take in their ascents of Everest or epic treks across the looming dunes of Saudi Arabia, they tend to avoid the greatest of all dangers: puffing themselves up.
Thus, mountaineer Glenn Porzak, describing a 1990 American expedition to Everest and its sister peak Lhotse, seems mildly embarrassed just to recount a particularly hair-raising part of the climb. “It consisted of a series of 100 foot vertical ice towers, which had to be climbed and descended with the aid of fixed ladders. Then a heavily crevassed area and final 75 foot head wall had to be negotiated before reaching the site of Camp I. This section had a deadly beauty and was simply awesome. To summarize my feelings about the Khumbu ice fall: after 32 separate trips through the ice fall over three expeditions, the best thing about having Everest behind me is knowing that I will never again have to set foot in this dreaded death trap.”
In his introduction, Plimpton describes the club’s traditional Thursday evening gatherings when members just back from some hard patch of the planet tell their stories. One can almost taste a fine old port, inducing what Mark Twain called “stretchers”—tales given just a push or two toward legend. “Do you believe in ghosts? Well, I don’t either,” begins Mervyn Cowie’s story about a spectral pride of man-eating lions, “but I have to admit that certain things happen in most unexpected ways, and forever defy any logical explanation. Some years ago I had a long tussle with ghosts and I eventually had to accept defeat. It all started and finished with lions. Let me tell you how it developed....”
Wait. Perhaps those flickering flames aren’t from the Explorers Club’s walk-in fireplace after all, but a campfire on the Serengeti. Go on, old chap, tell us the story.