Turning her back against the frigid Mount Everest wind, a forty-one-year-old mother of two tearfully records what she believes will be her last words into a tiny tape recorder.
A quadriplegic makes his first trip to Africa accompanied by a wheelchair and a naive nurse who can’t find Kenya on the map.
A seemingly sane man does the backstroke across Long Island Sound; a surgeon climbs Mount Rainier on his sixty-ninth birthday; and a young naval officer trades a carton of Spam and a roast pig for a close-up look at the Shark God of the Solomon Islands.
Who are these people with such extraordinary lives? Well, first of all, they’re your neighbors. Each one lives in New Canaan or Darien. Secondly, they are all members of the Explorers Club, a very special organization, more than 100 years old, which has meeting houses in nine countries. The United States alone has twenty chapters. World headquarters is in a rich-looking Park Avenue brownstone, once the home of the Singer Sewing Machine family.
The club bills itself as an international, multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space. The list of members — there are 3,000 plus — includes, among other notable adventurers and scientists, astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Sally Ride; Mount Everest climber Sir Edmund Hillary; deep-sea oceanographer Graham Hawkes; and Will Steger, who conducts impossible polar crossings by dogsled.
“It’s not just about traveling to faraway places or performing dangerous feats,” says Joe Blackburn over a cup of coffee in New Canaan. At fifty-nine, he’s lean, and his skin is tanned by wind and sun. “The Explorers Club is looking for more than that. I like to call what the club expects ‘adventure with a purpose.’ The point is to gather information and share it; it’s about learning, not thrill seeking.”
Blackburn’s interest in adventure likely began with his years in the U.S. Navy as a diver and a submariner, but it crystallized when he was asked to be official photographer for the Everest ’88 Kangshung Face Expedition, the first ascent of the avalanche-prone east face without the use of supplementary bottled oxygen. He spent three months documenting the ascent. Those months changed his life and redirected his career.
“I think the people of Tibet affected me as much as the mountain,” he says now. “Maybe more. I’m impressed by their peace, by the way they live such a meager existence so easily and calmly in such a harsh and dangerous environment. They’re so connected to the earth.” He pulls out photographs and lays them flat. One is of a group of sherpas who accompanied Blackburn and Robert Anderson on one of Anderson’s solo climbs. Their faces are weathered and radiant; their smiles, childlike. Another shows a bevy of orange-robed monks in solemn procession to temple; and another is a stunning view of the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s mountainside palace.
“I’d like to have an exhibit in Tibet,” says Blackburn, “to give back some of what they have given the climbing community. ”
Like so many other explorers, Blackburn minimizes his accomplishments, even when he is faced with hard facts like the 1996 Everest disaster, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.
“I was supposed to go on that trip,” he says. “They wasted so much time with paperwork and approvals that there wasn’t enough time for me to get acclimatized. I couldn’t go, and when I heard about what happened, I wanted all the more to have been there. I could have helped. I lost friends.”
To explain why he would travel for weeks for the chance to teeter on shards of ice while shouldering thirty pounds of equipment and looking through a lens instead of where he’s stepping, he says, “I love to take pictures. It’s a way to share with people who can’t go there.”
Everest changed T. Jewett’s life, too. She blames a brochure that came in the mail.
“It sat on my desk all summer,” T. says. Dressed in crisp white cotton and perched on the edge of a floral print couch in a sunny room, T. (her given name is Truda), now seventy-four, looks as though she would be more at home at an afternoon tea than hauling rucksacks and crampons.
“It just got to me, finally. I mean, I had always been active. I grew up sailing and hiking, but climbing Mount Everest?”
She’d heard Sir Edmund Hillary speak in Boston more than twenty years earlier, and the idea had germinated. After the summer of the brochure, on a whim, she bought the equipment at Bob’s Sports in New Canaan. When she picked up her children from the dentist’s office, Lisa, thirteen, and Lolly, twelve, peered over the back seat into the back of the van and asked, “What’s all that stuff, Mommy?”
“Breaking the news to my family was difficult. Not exactly easy to insert into the conversation.” T. laughs at herself. “Luckily, my husband, Link, has an adventurous spirit. He worked in the space program developing uses for liquid oxygen and liquid helium. Without that technology, we never would have made it to the moon. He understood why I needed to go.”
Next thing she knew, she was flying to Nepal. “I boarded the plane carrying my pickaxe. People must have thought I was nuts.”
It was T. who taped her last words, sure she was dying. “We weren’t even going to the summit, but we were at 18,500 feet. It was 130 degrees below zero, with the wind chill factor. And we’d been climbing for a week. Link had told me that sleepiness is the first sign of freezing to death, and we’d seen two bodies being carried down already. Then snow came. We huddled around a fire with the sherpas and drank some concoction they brewed up, made of fermented corn and spit! I began to hallucinate about helicopters coming to rescue me. I vowed, ‘Never again!’”
The descent was bitterly cold and every bit as physically demanding as climbing up. Despite all that, six months later,
T. Jewett felt herself longing to go back. Instead she bought a nineteen-and-a-half-foot AquaSport (an open cockpit motorboat) and started new adventures a little closer to home.
“I used to throw my golf clubs in the boat and ride across the Sound to play at Piping Rock. I took my boat everywhere, in all kinds of weather, and then I decided I would go for a longer trip. You should have seen the look on the dockmaster’s face when he asked me where I was going that day, and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to the Bahamas.’”
And T. just doesn’t quit: 2006 will bring more explorations for her and Link while they campaign to raise funds for schools in Vietnam, and T. accepts a new consulting job working with the Russians to stop the widespread practice of abandoning unwanted children.
Shaping the Future
It wasn’t Everest that changed Michael Devlin’s life; it was a dive into a shallow lake in 1968. “I had just graduated from college, and I had signed up for the marines. I wanted to fly helicopters in Vietnam.” He recalls the day he broke his neck with unemotional clarity. “I’d gone back to pack,” he says, “to say goodbye to everyone, and I decided to take a last swim.” The dive into the water fell short. He hit bottom, and when he came to in the hospital, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
His hospital roommates — also paralyzed — shaped Devlin’s future. One was a British-born Kenyan who’d been hurt in a water-skiing accident. The other, struck down by an unknown virus, was Fred Devine, then the director of CARE. Both men had endless stories about the unconscionable abuse of the world’s wildlife and wilderness.
Today, at fifty-seven, Devlin is robust and handsome, with a boyish face and pure white hair. “My dad, a member of the Explorers Club, by the way, was nature editor for the New York Times,” he explains. “I grew up hunting and fishing. We traveled all over; but it wasn’t until after the accident that I considered making conservation a vocation.”
His passion for animals and conservation finally led him to accept a position as U.S. regional director for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“There’s a saying in Africa which, loosely translated, means ‘We’ll make a plan.’ And that’s what happened.” Devlin’s eyes light up when he tells this story. “I had a crazy friend, Derek. He loved Africa and wanted me to go there. The wheelchair didn’t faze him. He threw a couple of wooden planks together to serve as a portable ramp, and we were off to South Africa and then on to Rhodesia.”
If it is possible for a man to fall in love with a country, then that’s what happened to Michael Devlin. “When the plane banked and I could see the Kalahari Desert, I felt like I was coming home.”
That was in 1976. His love affair with Africa has remained passionate. “If I met a woman I was interested in, I took her to Africa. I knew that she had to love Africa like I did. But no one loved Africa like I did.” Devlin smiles. “Then I met Betsy Jesup.” Ms. Jesup’s brother was married to Devlin’s sister, a true family affair. “When I took her to Africa, the love was complete.”
A quick walk through their home makes that obvious. The house has twenty years’ worth of souvenirs from African travels, dozens of photographs of Michael and Betsy in Africa laughing and waving from planes and jeeps, and stunning shots of lions, tigers, hippos, plus breathtaking landscapes — photographs taken by Betsy Devlin.
“We can’t go for as long as we used to,” says Devlin. He and his wife are owners of Handwright Gallery in New Canaan, which demands their time. “We have plenty of ways to continue our work over here. There are fundraisers, I give talks.” Emmy the dog wiggles up and nudges Devlin’s shoe. “But I don’t like to stay away from Africa for long.”
Charting New Worlds
Hank Strauss, who lives on Darien’s shoreline, was the young navy man who met the Shark God. “The waters off the coast of the Solomon Islands were known to be the most dangerously shark-infested waters in the world,” says Strauss, “and I helped to chart that water during World War II.”
Two fading nautical charts are framed and hung in a first-floor guest bathroom. To look close, you have to stand in the bathtub, which is what Strauss does. “Look here, a dotted line along the coast. That means the waters are uncharted.” The other chart is peppered with numbers. “We did those soundings,” he says proudly.
He is modest: Charting shark-infested waters may be the least of his accomplishments. On June 20, 1995, Senator Christopher Dodd read a tribute into the Congressional Record: “Mr. President, I rise today to recognize a distinguished citizen of my home state of Connecticut, Henry Strauss, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.” It was easy to be laudatory: He was cited for heroism during World War II, helping his shipmates survive gale-force winds and freezing waters off the coast of Newfoundland when their ship ran aground and broke apart.
“We spent hours trying to stay alive in the water,” says Strauss. “It was four in the morning. A little boy was out shooting birds on the shore, and he went home and told his father there was a boat sinking out in the ocean. The men of that fishing village walked miles through the snow to save us. Some of us died, and the rest of us …” He pauses. “Well, war changes people.”
Strauss has been a member of the Explorers Club since 1958, primarily because of his work with PanAmerican Airlines after the war. Strauss was a filmmaker. “PanAm was making training films that were supposed to introduce employees to the countries they were flying into, and I suppose they did. But what they didn’t do,” says Strauss, “was help the employees understand the culture of these countries. There would be a picture of Mount Fuji, and the voice-over would say, ‘This is Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan.’ My film opened with a shot of Fuji, and said ‘This is the mountain that is God.’ This was a more accurate description of what Mount Fuji is to the Japanese.”
He was the first American filmmaker allowed by the Soviet government to make a documentary film on Russia. And he was nominated in 1972 for an Academy Award for best documentary for a film titled Art Is… But filming other worlds was nothing like being there.
In 1970, when their children were grown, Strauss sold his business, and he and his wife, Jo, moved to Grenada. “People kept thinking we’d moved to Spain,” he laughs. For the next eighteen years, they sailed back and forth between the Caribbean and the United States by way of Venezuela, Trinidad and Puerto Rico, and he hasn’t quit exploring.
“As a kid, I used to peek in the window of the club, back before I had any idea what it was,” says Strauss. “I could see a big bison head and a zebra head, and once I saw a man wearing a kilt. I could never have imagined that I’d walk around in there someday and be one of those men.”
Making an Impact
Darien native David D’Angelo, twenty-six, joined the club on a student membership in 1999. “There are no established meetings like an ordinary club,” he explains. “There are nights set aside for locals to come and swap stories, and two or three times a month members give talks and show videos and images of their expeditions.” D’Angelo raves about the annual dinner. “It’s an incredible evening. You’re surrounded by outstanding and inspiring men and women.”
Last year’s speakers included James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA; Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who led the recovery of looted treasures in Baghdad; and Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the president of Iceland.
Today D’Angelo is cinematographer for Serac Adventure Films, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that makes documentaries and films of expeditions, adventures, extreme sports and events. He has traveled all over the world and been on the face of Mount Everest three times. He blames his parents (both immigrants from war-torn Italy) and the movies (“Around the World in 80 Days,” he says, “and a couple of old films with bear rugs in them”) for getting him started going on crazy trips. “Our family was always traveling. My mother worked for the airlines, so we got employee tickets. A family of four flying standby is an adventure in itself.”
But like Blackburn, D’Angelo is not about thrill seeking. Serac Films is currently working on a documentary about fighting malaria in Africa. D’Angelo went to New Zealand to film a heart-transplant patient climb Mount Aspiring, and these days he’s putting footage together for a DVD on the first blind man to climb Everest.
“When you go on a climb or a trip with amazing people and you are doing something that has an impact on the locals, that is really special.” D’Angelo is referring to one of Serac’s recent projects filming Everest climbers who visit and help conduct remote cataract surgeries in the high Himalayas.
“I got to see people who had been blind for years have their sight restored. Not many people my age get to be involved in something like that. I didn’t realize the significance of it at first, but after going to all the eye camps, I felt it. I am truly lucky for all this. Traveling with people like this, getting to share these experiences … it’s incredible. It helps you put perspective on things.”