Seeking adventure or escape wasn’t without peril even before the coronavirus pandemic stilled travel. Some trips don’t go as planned in dramatic ways. Food poisoning pauses your sushi-tasting tour of Tokyo. A trip on the trail in Yellowstone results in a broken arm. A pickpocket complicates your museum visits in Paris.
But other times real disaster strikes—especially for adventure travelers and expeditioners. From the summit of Everest to the jungles of the Amazon, from harsh elements to deadly insects, the world can be a perilous place.
One way to avoid trips gone bad is to read about them from the safety of your armchair. Here are some of our favorite cautionary tales.
Waylaid by water
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (2014), by Hampton Sides. With the pacing of a thriller writer and a historian’s attention to detail, Sides recounts the twisting, turning story of a late 19th-century polar expedition-gone-wrong. Bad luck—and a faulty theory about warm arctic seas—strands the crew literally on thin ice, where the challenges (snow blindness, polar bears, starvation) are as compelling as the characters.
Kon Tiki, (1948), by Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Norwegian writer/adventurer Heyerdahl and five companions successfully sailed a primitive wood and hemp raft from Peru to Polynesia. But the 4,300-mile, 101-day journey came with perils including shark encounters, men overboard, and a final crash into a coral reef. Though Heyerdahl’s prose and views seem a bit dated today, it’s still a ripping yarn of adventure and misadventure on the high seas.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth (2021), by Julian Sancton. In 1897, Adrien de Gerlache set sail aboard the Belgica, chasing dreams of being the first to reach the magnetic South Pole. After a number of setbacks, de Gerlache stubbornly presses on, trapping the ship in the frozen Bellingshausen Sea. Facing months of darkness, illness, and madness, crewmembers Frederick Cook and Roald Amundsen hatch a risky escape plan. Today, the isolation endured by the Belgica crew is studied by NASA scientists for future missions to Mars.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005), by Candice Millard. A “delightful holiday,” thought Teddy Roosevelt about his upcoming trip to chart the Rio da Dúvida, a tributary of the Amazon River. But the 1913–1914 expedition, led by renowned Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, was doomed from the start. Three men and half the pack animals die; Roosevelt nearly succumbs to malaria; his son Kermit narrowly escapes drowning. Flesh-eating piranhas, poisonous snakes, and a murder add to the epic misadventure that ultimately changed the map of Brazil.
Terrors on terra firma
Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (2020), by Suzanne Roberts. In this collection of essays, Roberts recounts her adventures while traveling mostly solo to 15 countries. Along the way she navigates mishaps both large and small, from a dangerous mudslide in Peru to a tricky romantic entanglement in Greece. Each experience offers a chance to probe her inner “bad tourist,” as she wrestles with issues of privilege, cultural blind spots, and her own insecurities on a journey to self-discovery.
Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park (Second edition, 2014), by Lee H. Whittlesey. “The park is not Disneyland, Rocky Mountain version,” says Whittlesey, a former NPS ranger whose meticulously reported, droll book catalogs the numerous ways nature can kill you in this grand expanse in Wyoming and Montana. There are fewer bear attacks than you’d expect, but readers may find themselves newly terrified of Yellowstone’s hot springs (they can boil you alive!) and bison (fuzzy looking, but apt to charge you or gore you).
In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon (1988), by Redmond O’Hanlon. “There are no leeches that go for you in the Amazon jungles,” notes O’Hanlon at the start of his four-month trek through the Venezuelan Amazon. But there are “amoebic and bacillary dysenteries, yellow and blackwater and dengue fevers, malaria, cholera, typhoid, rabies...plus one or two very special extras.” The author’s exhilarating expedition on uncharted rivers in a dugout canoe aims far—to reach beyond where 19th-century explorers went, to find a community of Yanomami peoples, and to survive encounters with all manner of deadly insects and animals.
The Wilderness Idiot: Lessons from an Accidental Adventurer (2019), by Ted Alvarez. “Just say yes” is the mantra for Alvarez, Backpacker magazine’s northwest editor. That often means the author will find himself in sticky situations, such as the time he spent chasing his clothes across a frozen tundra, naked. Hilarious stories like these break down any fear readers may have about venturing outside of their comfort zones. And that’s exactly what Alvarez is after in this humorous collection of the good trouble he gets into.
Mishaps in the mountains
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (1980), by Arlene Blum. In 1978, Blum was part of the first all-female expedition to summit Annapurna 1 in the Himalayas, the world’s tenth-highest peak. The record-breaking accomplishment came at a high price—two women fell to their deaths. In this eye-opening account, Blum brings readers to Base Camp, as the women battle the ever-present threat of avalanches, freezing winds, and altitude sickness—all while changing the world’s perception of what women are capable of.
Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season (2008), by Nick Heil. Seasoned climber and former editor of Outside magazine, Heil focuses on the 2006 Mount Everest climbing season, when 11 people died—the deadliest season on record. Among the victims was David Sharp, who lay dying as 40 climbers trekked passed him. Another, Lincoln Hall, was left for dead, but was later found alive. With an investigative reporter’s precision and a mountaineer’s expertise, Heil delves into the two mens’ fates and the problems that arise as high-altitude climbing becomes commercialized.
Into Thin Air (1999), by Jon Krakauer. No story about Everest would be complete without Krakauer’s contribution. In 1996, while on assignment for Outside magazine, Krakauer summited the iconic peak. But that day, a sudden storm killed eight others. In this now classic story, Krakauer examines the events of that tragic day and attempts to come to terms with the emotional aftermath.
More tales of travel terror
Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike (2021), by Brian Castner. In 1896, when a Yukon River tributary was found to have veins of gold so thick they resembled cheese sandwiches, it set off the largest gold rush in Canadian history. Castner, known for mining history for colorful characters and rich detail in previous books like Disappointment River, follows ill-equipped wannabe prospectors and profiteers (including adventure writer Jack London) as they suffer from scurvy, freeze, plunge to their deaths in icy crevices, and otherwise mostly fail to strike it rich.
Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel (2001), by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. It’s safe to say that the chances of encountering a runaway passenger train or an unconscious pilot while on an average vacation are slim. But as the authors assert, danger is lurking everywhere, and you can never be too safe. This edition in the popular Worst-Case Scenario series humorously breaks down all manner of sticky situations (however unlikely), based on advice from U.S. State Department officials, movie stunt people, and railroad engineers, among other experts.