The Adventurer's Guide


The Adventurer's Guide, by Jack Wheeler, New York: David McKay, 1976, 257 pp., $9.95

On September 15, 1958, at age 14, Jack Wheeler became the youngest person in mountaineering history to successfully climb the Matterhorn (which, in the meantime, with its awesome 4,478 meters, has become to Zermatt, Switzerland, what its slightly smaller namesake in Anaheim is to Orange County, California).

Two years later at age 16, Jack Wheeler entered alone (and survived it) Ecuador's headhunter country, to live with the infamous Shuara—the world's only people that shrink human heads. That very year (1960), Wheeler also survived 90 minutes in the Hellespont's wintery waters. In doing so, he improved considerably on the classics' Leander (who did not make it, thus unwittingly causing his heroine Hero's deadly downfall). Turkish captain Necati, in charge of rescue operations, was certainly right when exclaiming: "Great display guts. Fine young man came from America swim Dardanelles which had not seen daytime and especially this late in year."

At age 17, he roamed the jungles of South Vietnam's south-central highlands, searching not for the deadly Viet Cong, but for no less lethal man-hungry tigers, wounded leopards terrorizing whole Montagnard villages, and an enormous rogue elephant gone beserk. None of these terrors escaped the hunter's sure aim, and, wrapping up his Far Eastern pacification mission, Wheeler was free to climb Mount Fujiyama. In tennis shoes.

True mountaineers never climb in tennis shoes. To do so is to commit one of the more serious crimes against the guild's code of professionalism. So, while Wheeler's tennis shoes bear witness to Mount Fujiyama's permissiveness, they also give away their wearer's alpine attitude. On the other hand, Wheeler nowhere pretends to be an expert mountaineer. Experts would not waste their time and expertise on mere elevations such as Mount Olympus in Greece, Shri Pada in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), or even Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. All of these pose no challenge to the expert who leaves such hikes, exotic as they may be, to less narrow-minded souls—to Jack Wheeler's future clientele, for instance, and others bent on adventourism.

Adventourism is no recent phenomenon, the adventourer no new invention. As "globe-trotter" he (and she) has been around for quite some time. His (or hers) used to be an aristocratic hobby, often expensive and always time-consuming. The globe-trotter was admired and envied for his ability to travel to Srinagar and Puna, to Nairobi and Hammerfest, and to spend leisurely months away from home.

True, globe-trotting could be adventurous. Climbing Mounts Fujiyama and Kilimanjaro—as recently as 50 years ago—was bound to be an adventure, and so was crossing deserts such as Gobi or Sahara. Getting there could be a trying experience. Then, however, came air travel and the emergence of the leisure class, resulting in today's mass movements between continents and scheduled flights between exotic capitals and the adventurer's delight of yesteryear. Whether Tikal in Guatemala or Timbuktu in French Sudan, Srinagar in Kashmir or Iquitos in Peru, you can get there by scheduled airlines. Consequently, globe-trotting has become everybody's opportunity.

Take Barbara (originally from San Francisco). An employee with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, she is spending her month's vacation "trekking around Sikkim, Nepal, and the Kashmir, having spent earlier ones in Borneo, Hong Kong, Thailand, and southern India. Adventure to her was a way of life," writes Jack Wheeler. Adventure? How can he be serious?

Or take Christine Paul (whom Wheeler met in Samarkand): a woman of 65, whose enormous energy and joi de vivre exceeded even her massive bulk ("she weighed at least 300 pounds"). She had traveled to more places than anyone else Wheeler had ever known. An adventuress? Wheeler must be kidding.

Then there are Clay and Jackie Francisco. Wheeler met them in Bukhara. Or the 72-year-old doctor from New York; he's on crutches, and Wheeler met him in Timbuktu. All honorable globetrotters, no doubt, and victims of the misunderstanding called adventurism. What adventure, after all, could one possibly encouter in Samarkand and Bukhara? Save a few hours with the Soviet Secret Police.

If Wheeler's Barbaras, Christines, and Jackies were adventurers, what then are Robyn Davidson, Jane Wright, and Francoise Claustre? Miss Davidson just completed her crossing of Australia's desolate Gibson desert, on camel-back and after five months of voluntary isolation. Miss Wright was sailing from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to Malta when her sloop was shipwrecked off Somalia's coast. She is facing spying charges and the death penalty so popular in Mogadishu. Miss Claustre, a serious archeologist, was held captive for 33 months by rebels in northern Chad's Tibesti mountains and owes her newly won freedom to Libya's political adventurer, Colonel Mohammed Qadaffi. Somehow, Jack Wheeler ignores this kind of adventurism, with its hazards, giving prominence instead to adventourism.

Wheeler's personal record as an adventurer is indeed impressive. But can it be copied? His stay with the Shuara, for example, cannot, for the Shuara today are an intimidated people, having made their peace with the government. Certainly, one can still reach them, if not on foot (which involves weeks) then by helicopter: $200 per day and $200 per hour flying time, he tells us. But is this adventure? Wheeler, in giving detailed information about the Shuara region, is marketing adventure as he experienced it, several years ago, thus denigrating his own achievements.

If flying PanAm to Moscow, embarking on the Transsiberian Railroad, and stopping over at Tomsk and Bratsk is an adventure, then everything and nothing is an adventure anymore. If truck convoys now cross the Sahara on schedule (they do), how can crossing it in an organized travel tour be an adventure any longer? If the State Tourist Office of the Mongolian People's Democracy will let you hunt a rare breed of sheep against payment of a couple of thousand dollars, is "adventure" the appropriate term for your hunt (four-wheel-drive vehicle included in the fare)?

Perhaps Jack Wheeler is as innocent as the book's title makes him appear: an adventurer's guide. To the language-conscious, a contradiction in terms, for a guided adventure is no adventure at all. His book can guide potential adventurers only in the same sense in which outstanding individuals in any realm of activity show the way—by their own achievements. The specifics of such achievements can never, however, be marketed for others' doing.

So, the book is worthwhile, not for its packaging of this or that adventour, but for its recounting of one adventurer's escapades. Some of its practical aspects are useful; for example, Wheeler is excellent on firearms—but forget his camera advice. And his introduction is an enthusiastic, unpretentious boosting of adventure—some of which, by the way, is still to be had in this age of adventourism, but it must be discovered by true adventurers. By the likes of Jack Wheeler.

Mr. Maitre has recently taken up a new position as an editor of the German Sunday paper Die Welt am Zontag—the latest in a series of adventures that have included the traveling kind.