The Mystery of Risk

Why do we do it? What makes an explorer face danger and yet press on when others would turn back?

The man who led a landmark attempt to navigate the entire length of the Grand Canyon did not exactly look the part of a dashing gilded-age adventurer. John Wesley Powell stood only five feet six, had a shock of bristle-brush hair and an unruly tobacco-stained beard that splayed onto his chest. The right sleeve of his jacket hung empty, the result of a minié ball at the Battle of Shiloh. Yet after the war he went on to survey large swaths of the Rocky Mountains, live among hostile bands of Indians, raft the Green and Colorado Rivers, and probe the unmapped labyrinths of one of the world’s largest canyon systems. A stranger might reasonably have wondered what had steered this slight, one-armed university professor to embark on some of the riskiest explorations of his age.

In fact, the same could have been asked of each of the 32 men who joined Powell on January 13, 1888, at Washington, D.C.’s Cosmos Club. Like him, most had pursued their own perilous journeys into unknown wildernesses. Among them were veterans of the Civil War and Indian campaigns, naval officers, mountaineers, meteorologists, engineers, naturalists, cartographers, ethnologists, and a journalist who had crossed Siberia. They were men who had been stranded in the Arctic, survived violent weather at sea, escaped animal attacks and avalanches, endured extreme hunger, and persevered against the soul-crushing loneliness of traveling in remote landscapes.

They had gathered that evening to found the National Geographic Society and had agreed that their new organization’s mission—“the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge”—would require difficult explorations into unknown territories. Their ethos could be summed up by a passage Powell had written in his journal during his Colorado River expedition almost two decades earlier. After his team, riding in small boats, made several harrowing descents through rapids and over waterfalls, three of the men decided to quit and climb their way out of the canyons, taking their chances crossing the desert. “They entreat us not to go on, and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place,” Powell wrote. And yet “to leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.”

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