ON the Upper East Side of New York, between Woody Allen’s apartment and Henry Clay Frick’s famous mansion turned art museum, is a meeting point for mountain climbers, deep sea divers, adventurers and spacemen. Today the two flags outside The Explorer’s Club are flying at half-mast. One is the Stars and Stripes, the other is the flag of club itself. That standard has been carried to all the remotest corners of our planet, to the bottom of the ocean, and to the moon in every landing module that ever touched down there.
Astronaut John Glenn, who died in December 2016, was the club’s Honorary Chairman, and his fellow members are still in mourning. Inside their headquarters – a grand old townhouse with wood-panelled walls, stained glass windows and rich red leather furnishings – executive director Will Roseman remembers Glenn once saying that exploration is “curiosity acted upon”.
The first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, and later the oldest man in space when he flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1998, the late chairman also neatly illustrated the club’s ongoing mission. “He reminded us that medieval maps used to have dragons drawn on the unknown regions at the end of the world,” recalls Roseman. “He said it was our job to push those dragons right to the margins, and over the edges.”
The Explorer’s Club was founded by intrepid journalist and historian Henry Collins Walsh and a few like-minded gentlemen in 1904. They conceived it as a home base for convening before and after expeditions, sharing stories and resources, archiving their charts and logs, giving weekly public lectures that continue to this day. Early members included Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, the first men to reach the north pole in 1909.
The story has since persisted that Henson, the African-American navigator, was at the pole well before his wealthy white associate, and that Peary effectively stole the credit.
Asked to weigh in on this controversy, Roseman says “knowing what I know about Peary, I think it’s probably true”. “He was quite a scurrilous character who would often send other people on ahead of him, especially if he thought it was dangerous.” Among the club’s accumulated artefacts is the sled that carried both men over the ice, as well as the shoe shoes on which Admiral Richard Byrd trudged to the South Pole some years later.
Walking and talking me through the collection, Roseman also points out the pickaxes used by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for their first summiting of Mount Everest; native totems acquired by Michael Rockefeller shortly before he was cannibalised in New Guinea; the globe on which Thor Heyerdahl plotted a pan-Pacific course for his raft, the Kon-Tiki.
Later, Roseman passes me a chunk of the Kon-Tiki itself to heft in my hand – a lightweight, balsa wood piece of history. In my other hand I hold the glove worn by cosmonaut commander Vyacheslav Zudov when his Soyuz 23 capsule fell out of the sky, splashed down on frozen Lake Tengiz in Kazakhstan, and slowly sank beneath the ice. The walls of Roseman’s office are hung with swatches of canvas from the wings of planes flown by the Wright Brothers, the Red Baron, Amelia Earhart.
“Not the one she disappeared in, of course.” A pilot himself, my guide claims to be infinitely less dynamic a character than any of the figures immortalised here. He used to own a brokerage firm, but quit that business to live among the Baluba people of the Congo, flying supply runs for locals and missionaries.
After many experiences in Africa, “a lot of them bad”, he returned to the US to serve as police commissioner and later mayor of Carlstadt, New Jersey. On his first visit to The Explorer’s Club, he had the same reaction as anyone else, myself included: “Wow, what a cool place.”
It seemed to make manifest a notion that Roseman puts a lot of personal stock in, which he condenses into a quote from The Speed Of Darkness, a poem by Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Nominated to join by two existing members, as per club rules, he submitted his application to the rigorous peer-review admissions process.
“Honestly, I was surprised to be accepted,” he says, contrasting his own adventures with those of, say, the fearless taxidermist Carl Akeley, another former club president whose portrait hangs on the stairwell. That painting plainly shows the vicious scars clawed into his face by a pouncing leopard in Ethiopia – Akeley eventually killed his attacker by thrusting his fist down its throat.
In the upper gallery is a portrait of the giant (6 foot 7) Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, who once dug himself out of a blizzard with a chisel fashioned from his own frozen excrement, before self-amputating his frostbitten toes without anaesthetic. The whole leg came off later, but Freuchen went on to fight Nazis with the Danish resistance.
Today, says Roseman, more members tend to be oceanographers, climatologists and conservationists – names like Sylvia Earle, Dan Walsh and Neil Degrasse Tyson – rather than mighty hunters like former US president Teddy Roosevelt, who planned the Panama Canal at a table now stored next door, and whose safari trophies deck the halls of this building.
In the century-plus of its existence, the research supported by the club has trended away from conquest and toward a gradual reckoning with the consequences of human dominion over the Earth. “There has to be scientific component to every project we’re involved in, and saving the rhino or the rainforest has become every bit as much a part of our mission.”
The club’s beautiful Edmund Hillary map room is much less in use these days, as expeditions instead use GPS, magnetometers and drones to find lost cities; sunken ships; hitherto unknown animal, fish and insect species.
“You do sometimes hear that all the exploring has already been done. I think that’s ridiculous. We’re still making discoveries all the time, and within each discovery there might be an infinite number of others. There might be less field work going on, but is someone looking through a telescope any less of an explorer? Is Stephen Hawking [another club member] not an explorer?
“Personally, I think we’re entering a new Golden Age of exploration.”
For more information on The Explorer’s Club go to https://explorers.org