Super Subcultures

Secrets of the World’s Super-Explorers

For 111 years, a Manhattan mansion has been the gathering ground for adventurers who risk everything to reach the ends of the earth and depths of the oceans.

Secrets of the World’s Super-Explorers

It’s been a busy weekend for Don Walsh.

Yesterday he attended a lunch, followed by a high tea. Then he moderated a panel on polar travels aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, the warship docked on the Hudson River. A subsequent cocktail reception lasted long into the night. On this snowy morning in March, there is an early talk at the United Nations — also about polar exploration — followed by yet another lunch. Tomorrow, the same thing, but more meetings and a buffet, followed by his four a.m. trip back home to Dora, Oregon, population: ten (currently missing just him).

“Now I’m trying to get my tuxedo,” Walsh says, relishing his time in a white tee and cargo pants in the lobby of Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel. He has forty-five minutes to discuss his fifty-four-year history in The Explorers Club. The V.I.P. reception for the Club’s 111th annual dinner, hosted for the first time this year at the American Museum of Natural History, starts at six o’clock sharp. Tonight’s menu will feature cricket skewers and delectable tempura tarantulas. “I don’t eat the bugs,” Walsh clarifies.

In 1960, Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended nearly 36,000 feet to the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the world’s oceans. It was the moon landing of underwater exploration: where no man had ever gone before. Or, as Walsh remembers it, “another day at the office.” After surfacing, Piccard and Walsh figured it’d take about two years for someone else to boast the same feat. Actually, it took fifty-two, and it was another Explorers Club member: the film director James Cameron.

In 1991, Cameron, who had enlisted Walsh’s help on the set of “The Abyss,” approached him with a different project. “He told me he had this dream to go to the Mariana Trench,” Walsh explained. “So I said, ‘Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.’” He went anyway, returning with Cameron in 2012 on the same excursion that had gained him access into the Club five decades before. Now, eighty-three years old and the Explorers Club’s Honorary President, Walsh has successfully scaled the hierarchy of one of the most fascinating and elusive organizations in existence.

Taxidermy animals from the expeditions of many explorers at The Explorers Club headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)
Taxidermy animals from the expeditions of many explorers at The Explorers Club headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)

It’s impossible to define the Explorers Club in one sentence. On the one hand, it’s exactly what’s in the name: a league of explorers on a mission “to preserve the instinct to explore.” On the other hand, applicants cannot just climb Everest or take an adventurous vacation to the Amazon to qualify for membership. Instead, they are tasked with loftier challenges, like the mission “to gain knowledge for humankind.” Past members include Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong.

But modern exploration in popular culture looks a lot more like what’s available on any Facebook timeline; the “check-in” to a faraway airport or a constant stream of mission trip notifications. With the Internet, some argue, everything is available to everyone, so there’s no longer need for big adventures, done by larger-than-life people. Last month, The New York Times went as far as asking, “Do we really need explorers now, in the age of Google Maps?”

Yet its members know The Explorers Club for what it is: a shifting chronicle of discoveries that have changed the world as we know it. A club that can casually say its members were the first to travel to the North Pole and the South Pole. First to the highest point on Earth (the summit of Mount Everest) and first to the lowest point on Earth (the Mariana Trench). Even beyond our planet: First to the surface of the moon.

“That’s exploration: it’s curiosity activism. We’re all curious about things, wondering what the hell this painting is,” Walsh explains, pointing to a watercolor in the hotel lobby. “But if you act upon it, and find out who the artist is, now you’re exploring.”

And inside The Explorers Club, the search has only just begun.

East 70th Street between Park and Madison Avenue is your average stretch of land on Manhattan’s not-so-average Upper East Side: a collection of beautiful townhouses with a high-end boutique never more than few steps away. To those passing by, 46 East 70th Street looks out of place. Adorned with stained glass windows and a roof resembling a humble citadel, the mansion seems better suited for an English manor. Near the arched doorway hang two red, white and blue flags. A marble plaque, inscribed with “The Explorers Club” in a decadent typeface, is the only clue as to what this place is: the international headquarters.

The Explorers Club headquarters, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has welcomed members for over 100 years. (Photo by Angela Almeida)
The Explorers Club headquarters, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has welcomed members for over 100 years. (Photo by Angela Almeida)

On the Explorers Club website, the five-story building is described as a “gathering place,” but inside, it doubles as a living exhibit of the Club’s history, the subject of archivist Lacey Flint’s by-appointment tours. The coffee table on the first floor, Flint points out, was salvaged from Pearl Harbor. That ornate chair beside it once belonged to the last Chinese empress dowager. Three floors up, a taxidermied polar bear is not far from a statue of criss-crossing elephant tusks. On the fifth floor, a fake yeti scalp sits beside a table from Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where the plans for the Spanish-American War were pored over.

As Luc Hardy, a prestigious member of the Club, describes it, the international headquarters is a shrine, “to the extent that one compares exploration to some form of religion or spirituality.” And the signs of dogmatic discovery are everywhere: from the antiquated texts lining the wall of the Map Room, to the singularly lit library where one can come worship a painting of one of the Club’s saints, General Adolphus Greely.

Yet, to understand the true legacy of The Explorers Club, one has to know its genesis. And that story starts in 1904, with a man named Henry Collins Walsh.

Born in Italy to American parents, Walsh (no relation to Don Walsh) grew up to become a prolific journalist, historian and world traveler. By 1904 he had reported on the treatment of women in Morocco, explored Greenland and wrote “The Last Trip of the Miranda,” a detailed account of his boat’s sinking in the Arctic. But in many respects, Walsh was a romantic, with prospects that went far beyond his own journeys. “One has but to think of what exploration has done since Columbus crossed the seas in his cockle-shell boats to estimate how important the work is and how much remains to be done,” he wrote.

It was this notion — that exploration is never finished — which led him to assemble what can only be described as a Justice League of explorers. Walsh’s pursuit was simple: gather the best and brightest from each field and encourage the extraordinary.

First, he had Marshall Saville, the archaeologist. Saville was an explorer of South and Central America, but was best known as the curator of archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History. Then, Frank Chapman, the birdman. Chapman worked alongside Saville as the curator of ornithology at the Museum, expanding the field as its founding father.

Tusks from a rare double-tusked elephant, flanked by Explorers Club flags at the headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)
Tusks from a rare double-tusked elephant, flanked by Explorers Club flags at the headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)

And then there was David L. Brainard, the military mind. Brainard had fought in Indian battles, the Spanish-American War, and a civil war in Portugal. But in popular culture Brainard gained notoriety as one of the last survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. On that voyage, he was the right-hand man to Adolphus Greely, who left for the Canadian Arctic with twenty-five men and returned with only seven. The scientific journey had managed to break the record for the furthest point north reached along Greenland’s coast, but it came at a cost: After being stranded in sub-zero temperatures, many of Greely’s men and the Eskimo natives who joined died of frostbite and starvation. One man was killed for stealing food, and there were grisly reports of cannibalism. It took Greely’s wife Henrietta’s newspaper op-eds to finally provoke the American government to send Army forces to save the crew. By the time they were rescued, Greely, Brainard and the five others hadn’t eaten for ninety-two hours.

So Walsh called Greely, too.

Aside from geography, Walsh understood that exploration has a human face, best seen in Caspar Whitney, the self-doubting journalist. Whitney was a writer for Harper’s and a war correspondent; that to him, though, wasn’t enough to be called an explorer, at least in the conventional sense. In letters to Walsh, he hesitated at the invitation to be a founding member of what would very soon become the Explorers Club. “There are two kinds of exploration: the one the world knows best that discovers rivers and poles and mountains and things,” Whitney wrote. “And the one which discovers people as they are, really — the one that would rather establish a source of common thought communication than have a mountain peak named after him.”

Whitney was eventually convinced to join, but, of course the formula wouldn’t be complete without a deviant. His name was Hershel Parker. As the group’s engineer and mountaineer, Parker was famous for his inventions of the motor torpedo and helioscope for the United States government. But, in 1919 he would become infamous after marrying the artist, Evelyn Parker, and then disappearing from the face of the planet. It was a mystery that rocked New York City; one that grew into a scandal when he appeared five years later in Portland, Oregon, with divorce papers. Rumor has it he had been in India.

Parker can be credited, however, with exposing the falsehoods of another Explorers Club founder, Frederic Cook, who claimed he had reached the summit of Mount McKinley. Parker argued the topographical work didn’t match up. His Arctic claims were also later disputed. Cook was immediately barred from the Club, and all other founders severed their ties with him.

Nonetheless, Walsh had his crew. Each member completed a short questionnaire, detailing their lives and past accomplishments; items which are still meticulously chronicled in the archival library of the Explorers Club today. Greely, who is not considered an original founder, was sworn in as the Club’s first Honorary President, and the original seven got to work, based at a townhouse on West 67th Street. The first official Club meeting was held on October 25, 1905.

A hundred and eleven annual dinners later, the Club’s membership has ballooned from six to over 3,000 individuals worldwide, all of whom are volunteers. To keep up with the growth, the Club moved across Central Park in 1965 to where it is today, on East 70th. And, like Walsh, Greely, Brainard, Chapman, Parker, Whitney and Saville, the members still come from all walks of life, each with an adventure to tell.

“The first time you dive to the Titanic, it’s like a twelve-hour-long blind date,” David Concannon says. “You feel every emotion that you can possibly imagine. You’ll feel fear, happiness, relief that it’s over. [You’ll feel] this wonderment, like when that person crosses the restaurant for the first time. But you’ll feel sadness.”

In 1996, Concannon was one of the youngest members to ever join the Explorers Club at the age of thirty. He would go on to discover the world’s deepest wooden shipwreck in the Bermuda Triangle, and recover the Apollo F-11 engines that went to the moon. But for Concannon, nothing beats returning to the Titanic, which he did another three times. “You really do get the sense that you’re standing on the deck the night it sank, except that it’s dissolving like a sand castle,” he says.

A file on Theodore Roosevelt, one of the club’s honorary life members, at The Explorers Club headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)
A file on Theodore Roosevelt, one of the club’s honorary life members, at The Explorers Club headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)

In that dissolution, Concannon came across items that carried heavy weight: a graveyard of shoes; a leather suitcase that, he later discovered, belonged to a seventeen-year-old Argentine boy; the ship’s compass, which Concannon chose to leave in the wreckage; and binoculars that never found their way to the crows’ nest. “Had the crew members there had binoculars,” Concannon explains, “we wouldn’t be talking about this ship.”

Along five of his expeditions, to explore the Bermuda Triangle, the Apollo F-11 engines, and the Titanic, Concannon has carried what is arguably at the core of the Explorers Club: its flag. Concannon is just one of the hundreds of Club members who have been coronated as a flag expedition leader by the Flags and Honors Committee, a prestigious panel of which both David Concannon and Don Walsh are members. This means that Concannon’s expedition is endorsed by the Club, which can be used to attract potential sponsors, but, more importantly, it means he gets to carry an Explorers Club flag.

The red, white and blue design, with a compass in the center, is not just a touching travel souvenir. It is an explorer in its own right. The flags are numbered from one to 222, with histories that span the Club’s course throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Some flags are still active, while others have been retired. But between expeditions, all find their resting place in the basement of the Club.

“To a member, you’re given a flag that comes out of a vault, and it’s beaten up and tethered and it’s been all around the world,” Concannon says. “It’s been to the top of Mount Everest. It’s been to both poles. And that’s exactly what you’re holding in your hand.”

Concannon himself has carried Flag 132, which, after globe-trotting since 1948, was retired in 2011. On Luc Hardy’s Pax Arctica Expedition to the North Pole, he brought along Flag 61: now eight years old, and still kicking. And then there’s the legendary Flag 161, which is the only object to ever go to both the highest and lowest points on Earth — something no single human can say.

Every year, members’ submit proposal to the Flags and Honors Committee, vying for the chance to represent the Explorers Club by carrying its flag. The Committee then scrutinizes the plans’ prospects, in terms of feasibility, finances and scientific merit. Last year, the Committee nominated sixty flag proposals, which were then approved by the Board of Directors. Traditionally, a flag is then gifted to the expedition leader, and, upon return, the member must submit a report of their findings, attached with a photo of them at the destination, flag in hand. The flag is then returned to the Committee, and heads back down into the vault. Until the next adventure.

If it sounds ceremonial —even hierarchical — it is. The Explorers Club is essentially run by the Board of Directors, who are re-elected every year by the members. The board, however, delegates its staff powers to lower committees, such as the Membership Committee and the Flags and Honors Committee. Then there are Honorary Directors, Honorary Presidents and Honorary Life Members. But the unadorned title they’ve likely all shared in the past is flag holder.

Kenneth Kamler crossing a crevasse at 21,000 feet on Mt. Everest. (Photo courtesy Kenneth Kamler)
Kenneth Kamler crossing a crevasse at 21,000 feet on Mt. Everest. (Photo courtesy Kenneth Kamler)

Over the past two decades, Kenneth Kamler has held that title a remarkable twelve times, but has been on twenty flag expeditions in total. An orthopedic microsurgeon by training, Kamler spends most of his days serving as the doctor on dangerous and remote expeditions; most notably, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, which remains one of the deadliest days in the history of the mountain to date.

On May 10th of that year, Kamler was accompanying a climb to the summit of Mount Everest — his fourth trip — when an unforeseen blizzard struck. As the only doctor on the mountain that day, Kamler worked to revive any climbers who managed to fight their way back to his camp at the base of the mountain. He was armed only with two plastic bags of syringes with painkillers and steroids, and faced the terrifying task of saving lives at 21,000 feet. Eight climbers died that day.

That is why, as a member, former chairman, and one of two doctors on the Flags and Honors Committee, Kamler is strict with his vote on applications. Last year, he denied a Mount Everest flag expedition proposal because the climbs listed were, in his opinion, too dangerous to achieve. Another expedition to Africa didn’t detail adequate access to medical care, so Kamler reserved his vote as well. Both proposals were then revised, and eventually signed off on by a consensus.

As it turns out, Kamler’s next journey is slated for this August, with one of the explorers he at first shot down. They’ll be heading to Kazakhstan to interview survivors of a Russian Gulag. “That’s really the way the job works,” he explains. “You think you’re gonna make enemies by turning things down, but people in the Club are really personal. They understand, and they accept it. They’re grateful for it.”

For all the incredible stories Kamler and Concannon have to tell — and there are many — there is no sense of ego or braggadocio apparent in their voices. Even amidst more serious talks of mortality and merit, they still speak about the Explorers Club as this benchmark of what mankind is capable of, and what that means for our future. A juvenile excitement is evident. Like when Concannon’s mother woke him up, at age four, to watch the moon landing. Or when Kamler was first given a microscope as a kid. They still see the world on the brink of era-defining discovery.

“There are still a lot of wild, unexplored places, and now we have the means to get there and study them like never before,” Kamler says. “It’s a crossing of two lines on a graph: you have both civilization and culture seeing everything but also losing all of these places. On the upswing, there’s another line on the graph, which gives us access and means of getting there. I think those lines are crossing right now.”

Kamler treating a Sherpa with a fractured skull on Mt. Everest. (Photo courtesy Kenneth Kamler)
Kamler treating a Sherpa with a fractured skull on Mt. Everest. (Photo courtesy Kenneth Kamler)

Kamler paused, trying to find the right phrase. “It’s evolving exploration.”

It’s worth noting that, for a majority of its history, the Explorers Club was a boy’s social club. It wasn’t until 1981 that women were allowed to apply for membership. The Club’s roster was then expanded to include women like Sylvia Earle, a famous oceanographer who has led over fifty underwater expeditions, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space. The Club has seen two female presidents since. And now, out of eleven full-time staff members, six are women.

That list includes Emerald Nash, the director of member services. Nash is in charge of screening applications for membership and flags and forwarding them to the appropriate committee for further review. She found the job through a vague, anonymous Craigslist ad, and had no idea what the Explorers Club was when she first arrived at 46 East 70th.

“It did not say who it was for, so it was a very, very strange interview scenario. I just arrived not knowing what to expect. He told us it was the Explorers Club and I thought, ‘Okay…’” Nash says. “The thing that made it even funnier was that the Executive Director at the time, Matt Williams, had these little round tortoise shell glasses and a wax tip moustache. So I was like, ‘Where am I?’”

That was four years ago. Since then, Nash has seen a sharp increase in membership and flag applications from women. In many respects, she is now one of the first point persons for anyone who enters the Club, giving her a clear vantage point as to where the organization is headed. When asked about what the future might look like there, she pointed to Rosaly Lopes.

Lopes is an active member in the West Coast chapter of the Club. She bemoaned the Adventurers Club in Los Angeles, a smaller exploratory organization that still doesn’t allow women membership. Lopes herself holds the Guinness World Record for discovering the most active volcanoes. But none of them are on Earth.

While working as a Senior Research Scientist in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lopes used infrared data from the Galileo Space Craft to uncover seventy-one active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Recently, she’s moved on to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and its ice volcanoes. Her extensive work as a volcanologist and geologist led earned her recognition as one of the recipients of the 2014 Lowell Thomas Award, a high honor in the Club.

“We can learn a lot by using other planets as natural laboratories. Volcanoes behave in a particular way. On other planets, the conditions can be very different,” Lopes says. “Hopefully, if you understand the physics of those eruptions, than you understand the eruptions on Earth better.”

Although commercial space flights are not endorsed by the Club for flag expeditions, Nash has witnessed more and more applicants, like Lopes, looking to take their research beyond the stratosphere. We see signs of this reinvigorated interest in space everywhere: entrepreneur-explorers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have ascended into stardom, with projects like Mars One and SpaceX that have once again sparked our curiosity in finding what else is out there.

A display case holding the Explorers Club flag that was taken to the moon in 1969, at the Explorers Club Headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)
A display case holding the Explorers Club flag that was taken to the moon in 1969, at the Explorers Club Headquarters. (Photo by Angela Almeida)

“If you look at a map of the world from the 1400s, the world was flat,” David Concannon says, quoting fellow member John Glenn. “As John said of the Explorers Club’s past, ‘Ours is a history of pushing dragons off the maps, replacing them with knowledge.’”

“The purpose of the club,” he continues, “is to go and push back those dragons.”

Many adults above the age of forty have some semblance of an idea of who or what the Explorers Club is. That is because of the age they grew up in, when Neil Armstrong and Don Walsh were household names. But the opposite is true of the younger generation: most Millennials we spoke with sounded like Emerald four years ago. They weren’t familiar with the Club, nor did they have the faintest idea of what it did. They’ve watched the moon landing, but haven’t lived through one.

For the Club, this is the perfect opportunity to once again push exploration back into the mainstream. “We have not even touched ninety percent of the world’s oceans,” Concannon argued. “We have not explored much in space. We have not explored our history of who we are and where we came from. We’ve done a great job, but it’s not over.”

Yes, the members of the Club may sound like raging idealists. Even certifiably insane to those afraid of heights. But if, in fact, due to technology and innovation, we are entering a new Age of Exploration, whether it’s underwater or in the stars, then the legacy of the Explorers Club is still very much being written.

“I’m not worried that my great, great, great grandchildren will be excited when they go to the Explorers Club,” Luc Hardy said. ”I bet you in 100 years the Club will still be around and will just have different geographies.”

When asked about the prospect of his children on Mars, Hardy remarked, “Maybe they’ll go themselves and carry the flag there.”