Nominations are in full swing for the 2021 National Outdoor Book Awards, though submissions close pretty soon—to qualify, a book must be published by the end of this month. As we sat down to think about books we’d like to nominate, we reflected back on last year’s winners, many of which we recommended in our print journal’s fantastic recommended reading section (one of the books even inspired a Natural Curiosities column, a regular feature you’ll find only in print). This is a great slate of books for your end of summer reading pleasure. Here’s a publisher’s blurb for each of them.
The World Beneath Their Feet: Mountaineering Madness and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas. By Scott Ellsworth. Little, Brown and Company, New York. (Winner: History/Biography)
“As tension steadily rose between European powers in the 1930s, a different kind of battle was already raging across the Himalayas. Teams of mountaineers from Great Britain, Nazi Germany, and the United States were all competing to be the first to climb the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest and K2. Unlike climbers today, they had few photographs or maps, no properly working oxygen systems, and they wore leather boots and cotton parkas. Amazingly, and against all odds, they soon went farther and higher than anyone could have imagined.
And as they did, their story caught the world’s attention. The climbers were mobbed at train stations, and were featured in movies and plays. James Hilton created the mythical land of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, while an English eccentric named Maurice Wilson set out for Tibet in order to climb Mount Everest alone. And in the darkened corridors of the Third Reich, officials soon discovered the propaganda value of planting a Nazi flag on top of the world’s highest mountains
Set in London, New York, Germany, and in India, China, and Tibet, The World Beneath Their Feet is a story not only of climbing and mountain climbers, but also of passion and ambition, courage and folly, tradition and innovation, tragedy and triumph. Scott Ellsworth tells a rollicking, real-life adventure story that moves seamlessly from the streets of Manhattan to the footlights of the West End, deadly avalanches on Nanga Parbat, rioting in the Kashmir, and the wild mountain dreams of a New Zealand beekeeper named Edmund Hillary and a young Sherpa runaway called Tenzing Norgay.” BUY: Amazon; Bookshop
Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition. By Buddy Levy. St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Winner: History/Biography)
“In July 1881, Lt. A.W. Greely and his crew of 24 scientists and explorers were bound for the last region unmarked on global maps. Their goal: Farthest North. What would follow was one of the most extraordinary and terrible voyages ever made.
Greely and his men confronted every possible challenge—vicious wolves, sub-zero temperatures, and months of total darkness—as they set about exploring one of the most remote, unrelenting environments on the planet. In May 1882, they broke the 300-year-old record, and returned to camp to eagerly await the resupply ship scheduled to return at the end of the year. Only nothing came.
250 miles south, a wall of ice prevented any rescue from reaching them. Provisions thinned and a second winter descended. Back home, Greely’s wife worked tirelessly against government resistance to rally a rescue mission.
Months passed, and Greely made a drastic choice: he and his men loaded the remaining provisions and tools onto their five small boats, and pushed off into the treacherous waters. After just two weeks, dangerous floes surrounded them. Now new dangers awaited: insanity, threats of mutiny, and cannibalism. As food dwindled and the men weakened, Greely’s expedition clung desperately to life.” BUY: Amazon; Bookshop
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World. By Patrik Svensson. Ecco / HarperCollins, New York. (Winner: Natural History)
“Remarkably little is known about the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. So little, in fact, that scientists and philosophers have, for centuries, been obsessed with what has become known as the “eel question”: Where do eels come from? What are they? Are they fish or some other kind of creature altogether? Even today, in an age of advanced science, no one has ever seen eels mating or giving birth, and we still don’t understand what drives them, after living for decades in freshwater, to swim great distances back to the ocean at the end of their lives. They remain a mystery.
Blending memoir and nature writing at its best, Svensson’s journey to understand the eel becomes an exploration of the human condition that delves into overarching issues about our roots and destiny, both as humans and as animals, and, ultimately, how to handle the biggest question of all: death. The result is a gripping and slippery narrative that will surprise and enchant.” BUY: Amazon; Bookshop
Dragons in the Snow: Avalanche Detectives and the Race to Beat Death in the Mountains. By Edward Power. Mountaineers Books, Seattle. (Winner: Outdoor Literature)
“Edward Power sets the reader down in the midst of a February 2017 blizzard that raked Utah’s Uinta Range as nine snowboarders made their way into the backcountry for a day of intense adventure. As the boarders were taking their first turns, expert avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon was tracking the storm and its impact, posting one of the most dire avalanche forecasts and warnings in his career.
In Dragons in the Snow, Power delves into the research and science behind avalanche forecasting and rescue, weaving in the art of backcountry skiing as well as dramatic tales of avalanche accidents, rescues, and recoveries. And he paints compelling portraits of the men and women who have made the study of avalanches their life’s work. The tales told by these avalanche forecasters, as well as the stories of the backcountry riders who may “wake the dragon” make for not just a compelling read, but also a powerful tool for raising avalanche awareness in everyone who plays in the winter backcountry.” BUY: Amazon; Bookshop ; Mountaineers
The Only Kayak: A Journey Into the Heart of Alaska. By Kim Heacox. Lyons Press, Guilford, CT. (Winner: Classic)
“‘I live in the sunshine of friends and the shadows of glaciers. I suppose I will die there too, if all goes well. No hurry though. The hardness of water, the ebb and flow of ice, the once and future glaciers of America, they created my home and they will destroy it. My winter is only a heartbeat to them. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t born in a cave or raised by wolves. I grew up on pavement and the soft seat of a Schwinn Red Racer, gripping the handlebars with everything I had. Then I let go. Somewhere along the way I let go and found something new, but also something ancient. I moved to Glacier Bay, Alaska, the last wild shore, nine hundred miles north of Seattle and nine hundred years in the past, and I never came back.’ — from The Only Kayak
So begins a coming-of-middle-age memoir by Kim Heacox who writes in the tradition of Edward Abbey, John McPhee and Henry David Thoreau, his voice at times tender, irate, funny, and deeply humane. What he finds in Alaska is a land reborn from beneath a massive glacier (one hundred miles long, five thousand feet thick), where flowers emerge from boulders, moose swim fjords, and bears cross crevasses with Homeric resolve. In such a place Heacox finds that people are reborn too. Friends become family in a land of risk and hope. Lives begin anew with incredible journeys, epiphanies, and successes. All in an America free of crass commercialism and over-development.
Braided through the larger story are tales of gold prospectors and the cabin they built sixty years ago, a cabin that refuses to fall down; plus tales of John Muir and his intrepid terrier, Stickeen; and a dynamic geology professor who teaches earth science as if every day were ageological epoch.” BUY: Amazon; Bookshop