Tibet's Secret Mountain: The Triumph of Sepu Kangri
by Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke (distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square Books, $30)
Sir Chris Bonington and Dr. Charlie Clarke saw 22,800-foot Sepu Kangri for the first time from the air. En route to Mount Everest in 1982 in an old Russian turboprop, the British climbers peered down on an astonishing string of mountains in eastern Tibet—”a range of 5,000–7,000-meter peaks,” writes Bonington, “comparable in length to the entire Swiss Alps, that was still completely unknown.” To Western climbers, that is. Fourteen years later, famed expedition leader Bonington and his friend, neurologist Clarke, guided only by a tourist map and an old photo, became the first Westerners to reach Sepu Kangri, or the White Snow God, in the once-forbidden Nyenchen Tanglha range. They returned twice, albeit burdened with teams of porters and mounds of satellite technology, but with a spirit of exploration more thoughtful and inquisitive than many of today's bravado-fired climbing assaults. Told in alternating-bylined chapters—Bonington, now 65, on the climb up Sepu Kangri, and Clarke, 56, on the culture of the Tibetans who befriended the team and sought medical care from him—Tibet's Secret Mountain is a welcome throwback to the days of graceful memoirs by gentlemen-explorers. The 1998 team ultimately came within 150 yards of the summit before monsoon weather turned them back—but refreshingly, no one seemed to mind: “I just felt we had a magic story, of exploration, of a fabulous mountain,” writes Bonington. And so they did.
A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West
by David Roberts (Simon & Schuster, $25)
Almost on the heels of The Lost Explorer, Roberts's and Conrad Anker's account of the discovery of George Mallory's body, this prolific author (and Outside contributing editor) is back with a saga of two unlikely explorers and their far-ranging expeditions. John C. Frémont and Kit Carson met on a Missouri River steamer in 1842—32-year-old mountain man Carson poor and adrift in the twilight of the beaver trade, and 29-year-old army lieutenant Frémont commissioned to head a mapping party along the Oregon Trail. But with Carson as scout, Frémont veered away from his assignment and led his men deep into the Wind River Range in winter, a journey that nearly killed them but earned their leader national celebrity after he published his self-aggrandizing account. On their second expedition, in 1843, Frémont again ignored orders and instead logged 3,500 miles in 14 months, crossing the Sierra in winter to even greater fame. But the third expedition proved ruinous; he was court-martialed in 1848 for an attempted takeover of Mexican California. Roberts's retelling of these events owes much to previous works but is often riveting, most notably in his recounting of Frémont's idiotic crossing of Colorado's San Juans in the winter of 1848, this time without Carson. (Living off their own boiled boots and abandoned by their leader, the men were reduced to cannibalism.) While Frémont seems at best a vainglorious bumbler, at worst a callous coward, Carson proves more complex, an illiterate who nonetheless spoke ten Indian languages, a storied Indian-killer who became one of the Navajos' greatest advocates. Together the two men lived the last pioneering adventures of Manifest Destiny.
Savage Shore: Life and Death with Nicaragua's Last Sharkhunters
by Edward Marriott (Metropolitan Books, $24)
Unfortunately for Nicaragua's aggressive bull shark—the only shark to patrol both ocean and freshwater—the region's fishermen are just as aggressive, using only handlines to haul the four-foot-long predators into dugout canoes. Bull shark fins, considered a delicacy in Asia, fetch thousands of dollars; such economics have driven both the shark, and the fishermen's livelihood, to the brink of extinction. English travel writer Edward Marriott follows the migrations of both dying breeds from the rough Miskito Coast port of Bluefields up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua's Solentiname Islands and the lake's last fish stocks. With an ear for salty dialogue and a talent for vivid description (a trader's boat “is loaded to the gunwales with canned fruit and cases of beer, sacks of rice and a kingsize, flamingo-pink wardrobe”), Marriott illuminates both the high art of sharkhunting and the good-humored grit of its masters, who know “how to have the line flying weightless through the palm, how to draw it back through the water at that certain depth, how to strike—knowingly, not too fast—and, just as crucial, how to play the part of the gnarled seadog, impassive…unchanging as the sun.”
The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate
by William K. Stevens (Delacorte Press, $25)
Don't let the timid title throw you: New York Times reporter Bill Stevens's investigation into our recent wave of freak floods and deadly heat waves is one of the most accessible and comprehensive accounts of that looming twenty-first-century monster, climate change. Is the earth warming? Are the ice caps melting? Is it mankind's fault? Assembling a raft of evidence, Stevens sifts through what we do know: that a warmer atmosphere causes more water to evaporate, holds more water, and releases more water. Rains become Biblical, floods extreme. From the birth of the sun to the hole in the ozone layer, from Ojibwa weather myths to Chinese lightning gods, and from the 1995 Madrid Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Stevens traces the cultural and political history of contemporary meteorology, with its attendant bespectacled climatologists and careful paleontologists, greenhouse gases and partisan politics. The story may be a familiar one, and this telling of it can be heavy going at times, but Stevens's book readily achieves its sensible aims—to navigate the bloated morass of information on the earth's climatic future, and “to provide a guide through the shoals of exaggeration and cant.”