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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes

Mischief in Memory

January 1, 2015

Thanks to the lousy weather and the holiday letdown, I would have had a really severe case of cabin fever over the weekend if the mailman hadn't showed up with a book I've been wanting to read for years. Actually, it was a compilation of eight books by an Englishman named H.W. Tilman, and even with all the time I had free I'm still only a third of the way or so through the fascinating series of tales he tells.

Tilman was an original, or the last of his breed, or something. For centuries, explorers have headed out to see what's over the next hill, in search of El Dorado or Cibola, or just to see what's out there that no one has seen before -- even by air. But by the nineteen-twenties and thirties, the world was running out of such places, and mostly those places were pretty remote and inhospitable, like Antarctica or the more desolate reaches of the Himalayas.

Now, Tilman was a mountaineer and was on several attempts to climb Mt. Everest. In between Everest attempts, he spent an awful lot of time poking around in hitherto unknown places in the Himalayas. But by the nineteen-fifties even those places were becoming known and at times even crowded.

Even though Tilman was now in his fifties -- he was born in 1898 -- his call to adventure was no less strong. He wound up buying a sailboat with the idea of sailing it to otherwise hard-to-reach mountains to climb. Places like Patagonia, Greenland, the Antarctic Peninsula and several desolate sub-Antarctic islands.

The boat he bought, a 45-foot Bristol Pilot Cutter built in 1906 named Mischief took him a good many such places over the next twenty-five years. These were no short voyages, either; his first such expedition, exploring a glacier in Patagonia at the far end of South America, took him a little over a year, with only about six weeks of it actually spent in climbing. Other voyages were as long.

He didn't always head for the southern ocean; in later years he led crews of a handful of men on voyages to places like Greenland and the Canadian arctic. He wrote about his adventures with a dry wit and a real talent for understatement. What they represent is a last look at the way some things used to be done.

The advent of GPS technology and the ready availability of satellite mapping and imaging has closed forever the 'heroic' era of expedition travel in which Tilman achieved many notable objectives. Tilman's famous comment on the early Everest expeditions, that "any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of an envelope." applied equally to his high latitude voyages. Apart from sextant, compass and a short wave radio receiver for time signals and shipping forecasts, his boats carried no technology, no liferaft and only very basic rations for the crew.

To find a crew, Tilman would either rely on recommendations from personal networks or would resort to the insertion of a brief notice in the Times, typically 'Hands wanted for long voyage in small boat: no pay, no prospects, not much pleasure'. That the crew were not asked to contribute financially towards the voyages led Tilman to expect that they would accept his leadership and judgement without question.

At the age of 80, Tilman was on his way to the Antarctic again, this time on a boat owned and captained by a younger man. The boat disappeared between Rio de Janerio and the Falkland Islands; no trace was ever found. Somehow it's easy to think Tilman would have been satisfied with that.

I'd like to say that the world is a poorer place without Tilman in it, but that wouldn't be exactly right. The world doesn't have much room or need for someone like Tilman any more, and that's what makes it a poorer place.

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