The Explorers Club's Members Have Seen it All
BY EVE ZIBART
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC STRIFFLER
A gallery of former members adorns a staircase
Extreme before X-treme, survivors of inhospitable islands long before Survivor’s Richard Hatch, they trekked across continents of ice and tracked great rivers to their tropical sources. For their exploits they were knighted, celebrated, and not infrequently, mourned. They were the explorers: the first to reach the North Pole (Robert Peary in 1909) and the South (Roald Amundsen in 1911); the highest peak in the world (the 29,000-foot Mount Everest, by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953) and the deepest trough of the sea (Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, who went 36,000 feet down to the Marianas Trench in 1960). They were even the first men on the moon— Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins in 1969.
And they were the Explorers, members of one of New York’s most exclusive yet meritocratic clubs. For more than a century, those with the “right stuff,” including astronaut John Glenn and sound-barrier blaster Chuck Yeager, have come together in Manhattan, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, to swap tales of terror and unknown territory, submarine mysteries, wrecks and ruins and lunar craters.
Oh, yes, and to nibble on exotic foods. For years, items such as tempura-fried tarantulas, teriyaki-glazed scorpions and cockroaches, fried crickets and durian (aka stinky fruit), sweet-and-sour bovine penis, bull testicles, and pork uterus have made the Explorers Club annual dinners famous, even if the club itself has remained relatively obscure. “We’re changing the menu name this year,” says club president Lorie Karnath. “Frankly, anyone who’s traveled much has eaten some of this stuff. And in parts of the world where money is scarce, [insects] are the most sustainable protein. So we’re calling them ‘foods of the future.’”
Since its founding in 1904 at the instigation of Arctic explorer Henry Collins Walsh, the Explorers Club has encouraged scientists of all kinds, as well as those intrepid, envelope-pushing adventurers, to assemble and share information about the earth, oceans, air (and now space), ancient civilizations and species, and—with increasing urgency—to promote conservation.
Over the past century, members have included pioneering aviators Charles Lindbergh and Richard E. Byrd, as well as three United States Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. (Teddy Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter Anna Roosevelt, who discovered 10,000-year-old cave paintings in the Amazon, is also a member.) Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom star Marlin Perkins was an Explorer; his cohost Jim Fowler still is.
But whether or not you know the names of Explorers Club members, chances are you know something about their work. Robert Ballard is the underwater archaeologist who discovered the wrecks of the Titanic, the Bismarck, and JFK’s PT-109. Philip Currie, a dinosaur expert, was a model for Sam Neill’s character in Jurassic Park. Anthropologist Dian Fossey was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, while chimpanzee champion Jane Goodall has been featured in at least 15 documentaries.
Even the club’s headquarters, a six-story Jacobean revival mansion on East 70th Street, has been portrayed in the movies: It inspired the clubhouse in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray. Completed in 1912 for a Singer Sewing Company heir but now called the Lowell Thomas Building in honor of the journalist (and club member) who tracked Lawrence of Arabia through the desert, it houses such trophies as a rearing polar bear and a pair of elephant tusks flanking a fireplace; photographs of the many points on earth (and the moon) where the club’s standard has flown; and a treasure trove of books, journals, and manuscripts.
“The sensation [of entering the club] is just amazing,” says extreme Arctic kayaker (and onetime organic chemist) Jon Turk, whose most recent book, The Raven’s Gift, is an account of his relationship with a 100-year-old Siberian shaman. “I grew up steeped in the tradition of the great explorers and the discovery of the poles, and to see Robert Peary’s sled and these incredible photographs… you just have this incredible sensation of following in the footsteps of all the explorers who went before you.”
Joining the club requires nomination by at least one member; yearly dues are inexpensive by Manhattan private club standards. Newcomers will join an illustrious roster that includes, in addition to past adventurers, such indomitable achievers as astronauts Sally Ride and Kathryn Sullivan, and Richard Garriott, who followed his father, Owen, into space but might be better known as “Lord British,” the creator of the Ultima video games. And there is Sir Ranulph Fiennes, whom the Guinness Book of World Records calls “the world’s greatest explorer.” Fiennes circumnavigated the world on its polar axis by surface transport, a feat never since repeated; discovered the lost city of Ubar in Oman; climbed the Eiger’s dreaded north face at age 63 and Mt. Everest at 65. “We have some members who’ve belonged for 50 years,” says Karnath. “After all, you have to be physically fit to be an explorer; it takes stamina and desire and perseverance… I always say, become an explorer and you’ll live forever.”
Not everyone has been so fortunate. Steve Fossett, the financial trader who set more than 110 records in five sports and whose plane went down in Nevada in 2007, is just one of the club’s more recent casualties. The November publication of a lavish Assouline book, South Pole: The British Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913 by National Geographic environmental writer Christine Dell’Amore, about the struggle by Explorers Club member Captain Robert F. Scott and his team to plant the British flag on uncharted territory, underscores the perils of exploration. Not only were they beaten to the pole, Scott and his team all perished from the cold, only 11 miles from safety.
Karnath, five feet, five inches tall and about 110 pounds, describes being on expeditions where conditions were so dire that she “prayed to every god in the universe” to get her out. She particularly remembers one climb up the 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia: “The monsoons came early, so when we started the climb at sea level it was about 100 degrees. I was carrying 40 pounds of supplies for a group up there, and the Army captain with me got very ill, so I had to drag him, his 40 pounds, and mine up this icy granite. My face, hands, and feet were bleeding, and I swore that if I got out I would never, ever do anything like that again.”
Karnath is only the second woman elected president of the club (the first was Faanya Rose, who was sponsored by Kon-Tiki captain Thor Heyerdahl), but in the two and a half years that she’s headed the Explorers, Karnath has worked to transform public awareness of the group, giving interviews and emphasizing outreach and education (Monday night lectures are open to the public, as are the Saturday students’ science programs).
She’s become the club’s most successful fundraiser, spearheading a $2 million restoration of the New York headquarters, the first phase of which was completed this year; expanding its membership to around 3,000 in about 30 chapters (500 members are in New York); and, perhaps not coincidentally, acquiring a liquor license for the Manhattan club. Raising money isn’t just a matter of cleaning house, however; in a time when money is tight, funding the club’s grants and securing its endowment are essential.
Karnath is a lover of adventure with little formal study. She grew up in a family addicted to travel, and by age 10 was taking camping trips in Europe by herself. “I was pretty out there,” she says. She hitched onto her first expedition at 15, and although she followed her father into the investment business, she continued to wander. She became a member of the Explorers Club in 1989, at age 29, once joking that she had trained “in the jungles of Wall Street.”
“But I’ve always had that nonprofit component to my life.” She and her husband, Robert Roethenmund, who is chair of the Western European chapter of the Explorers Club, have founded several children’s schools and care facilities in western Myanmar and the mountainous Yunnan region of China. They shuttle between an Arts and Crafts house in the Hudson Valley, a 400-year-old home in Normandy, and an apartment in Berlin.
It may seem as if humans have explored the earth pretty thoroughly and made a fair start on outer space, but Karnath points out that advances in technology and biosciences have drastically altered the concept of exploration, and of “inner” and “outer” as well. “We’re going places we thought we knew, studying species we thought were related, and through genetic testing or age dating, discovering it’s not accurate,” she says. “We may have to adjust our theories of evolution. The ocean covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and we know more about outer space than we do the ocean.”
Karnath’s mantra, often repeated, consists of five words: “Explore, discover, share, preserve, sustain,” share being the most important of these. “If we don’t share our scientific knowledge, it’s meaningless,” she says. “Exploration is a personal pursuit, but it’s not a personal exploit.” 46 E. 70th St., 212-628-8383
Behind the scenes with Sigourney Weaver in her Gotham cover shoot.