The first time I came across The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, was in the pages of this magazine. Back in 2001, Outside named the nearly 600-page memoir the greatest adventure book of all time, praise I soon discovered was completely justified. Though the book is an incredible account of the 1910–13 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, its title is not actually in reference to the Brits’ doomed trip to the South Pole. The real worst journey involved a lesser known odyssey that Cherry-Garrard and two other unlucky souls embarked on earlier in the trip. In the middle of the winter of 1911, the trio set off on skis from the expedition’s comparatively safe headquarters to capture emperor penguin eggs, then believed to contain a key piece of evidence linking flightless birds to reptiles in the evolutionary chain. To reach the penguins’ breeding grounds, the small team pulled sledges 67 miles in total darkness, camping in temperatures that reached 77 degrees below zero. Some nights it took them an hour just to pry open their frozen reindeer-skin sleeping bags. In recounting the 35-day saga, Cherry-Garrard writes the most vivid scenes of human suffering I’ve ever read. And despite deadly crevasse falls, a dental nightmare, and other calamities, they somehow succeeded.
The main expedition was not so lucky. The Brits made it to the South Pole, only to discover that they’d been beaten by the Norwegians. The five-member party all died on the return trip. And while Cherry-Garrard and the other survivors received a hero’s welcome when they returned to England, it wasn’t long before they were seen as failures by their countrymen. To compound Cherry-Garrard’s personal ignominy, during the three years he was away, advances in science had rendered the information in the embryos he’d risked his life to obtain irrelevant. London’s Natural History Museum could hardly be bothered to accept the eggs for its collection. Ending on such a heartbreaking note, Worst Journey seems to ask its own version of the old riddle about a tree falling in the woods. If you endure the harshest conditions on earth but your quest is in vain, does the world care?
Judging by the contents of nearly every issue of Outside, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. If we’ve learned anything in the past 40 years, it’s that stories about people who have suffered in the extreme are the ones that endure in the minds of readers. That truth is reflected in the fact that so many of the Outside stories that went on to become bestselling books, including Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm, are survival tales at their core. It’s true that we cover all kinds of outdoor experiences requiring no risk whatsoever. But the stories that continue to enthrall, the ones readers flock to online and e-mail to friends, nearly all involve our best writers either confronting nature’s harshest elements or profiling memorable characters who have done so, by choice or by accident. That’s the idea that eventually brought the pieces in this anniversary issue together, even if it wasn’t necessarily our intent from the start.
Here I should acknowledge that creating an anniversary issue like the one now in your hands is always a precarious exercise. For those of us working at Outside, making it to 40 is a big deal, especially in a media climate as volatile as the current one. After four decades, we’re excited that we’re not only alive but thriving, and naturally our instinct is to celebrate. We also understand that readers derive little enjoyment from the navel-gazing and misty-eyed reflection that often comes with observing such milestones. So as we began to plot our strategy for this month’s issue, an effort led by longtime editorial director Alex Heard, we aimed to avoid looking back at all. (Well, at least with our storytelling. The exhaustive masthead on the previous pages is our one massive nod to posterity.) Instead of merely cataloging our greatest hits or producing dozens of too familiar “Where are they now?” accounts, Heard suggested something more ambitious: The Meaning of Life. To execute this idea, we reached out to our favorite writers and solicited stories that might offer some small bit of enlightenment from their years of, as we say in our tagline, Living Bravely. We didn’t want treacly “teachable moments.” We didn’t want simple answers. And we didn’t want page after page of indulgent autobiography. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that we had little idea what we were after until we finally had the nine stories before you.
The Meaning of Life. We were aware of the likelihood that we’d fail to deliver on that lofty cover line. Too grandiose? Perhaps. But I think you’ll find it here. While the issue has no real beginning or end, no painstakingly arranged chapters building to a remarkable conclusion, the thread that holds these stories together is an exploration of suffering, whether physical (like Tim Cahill surviving his own brief death in “My Drowning (And Other Inconveniences)") or emotional (Lance Armstrong confronting his fall from grace in “The Road Goes On Forever and the Story Never Ends”) or both (Samuel Massie living through a tragic Antarctic expedition in “Rough Passage”). What you’ll take from them is that same bit of wisdom gleaned from all great adventure tales. We humans can endure far more than we ever imagined.