Since 1904, the Tudor-style mansion on 70th Street in New York’s Upper East Side has been home to the iconic Explorers Club, a society whose members are the world’s foremost explorers of our times – including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Roy Chapman Andrews and James Cameron, among many others.
On a recent afternoon, Alan Nichols, president of the Explorers Club for the past two years and a longtime member, welcomed us into his office, the Roosevelt Room (named after the founder of the club, Teddy Roosevelt). He was reading a book about the world being taken over by machines, and mischievously admitted, “I am having fun right now when I should be doing all these business things.” At the age of 84, a lawyer by training and a passionate explorer (he was the first Westerner to bike the Silk Road from Istanbul to Xian) with three flag expeditions under his belt, Nichols has not lost his sense of curiosity.
In the hour that followed, he spoke about his fascination with mountains – one of his children is even named Chan, the Chinese word for mountain – his continuing to seek the mysterious and the spiritual in his explorations, and the experience of “going to the limit of what I can do physically and emotionally.”
Where was your last expedition?
I was on the Missouri River last fall, but my real interest has always been sacred mountains. That led to my visit to Inner Mongolia in the summer of 2012 to find where Gengis Khan was buried. A professor had told me about a certain range of mountains. I thought if I just went I would find it…
You have been working on that project for years. What drew you to it?
It came about through learning that sacred mountains are a specific place where you bury your major leaders; you don’t build tombs. Gengis Khan was a perfect example of that: I think I have found him, but we’ve only done underground testing, we haven’t started digging. We’ve been back three times and done magnetometry tests on that particular site.
Why are you so fascinated by sacred mountains?
In the 1970s, I was in Arizona in a small hotel overlooking the desert, and I woke up with this dream of sacred mountains. I started writing poetry. When I got home, I thought, there are a billion books on religion, two billion on mountains – there must be one putting them together. But I couldn’t find any. So that started my career: I wrote a book on sacred mountains, went around the world in 40 days – which is an important timeframe to get anything spiritual done – and then that interest drove me into Asia.
Sacred mountains were an important part of all religions in the entire world, but you don’t see much now. I did a lot of research in California, because that’s where I live, but it’s all history and not real in terms of people experiencing the mountain where they are living. In Asia, there are so many countries and areas that aren’t as modernized, and they still have some of the traditions of ancient times. Fujisan, Kailash – all these mountains still have people who believe, although that’s going fast. In one sense, the concepts I learn from Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and Islamists is intellectual knowledge, but there is also something beyond which you might call spiritual – and that is even more important.
How did you become an explorer?
I am not good at being an observer. I don’t really like to sit and watch things. Anything I see that interests me, I want to do it. And of course that has played into my predisposition to actually experience these religions and climb these mountains.
What do you bring on your expeditions?
One thing I always take is a patron saint of the expedition. For example, in Central Asia I had Rumi, the Sufi. Sometimes I take a book by a master or a Zoroaster, or Buddhist statements or Tibetan Buddhism. And that’s my only literature. Because if you read too much you get distracted. I always self-hypnotize so I kind of become a Japanese pilgrim going up Fuji-san, or a Shugendō in the Japanese Alps. From an equipment point of view, I take food, usually canned. I am really careful about what I eat, because if you are out bicycling and you get sick, then you are through. So the food that I carry is really important, otherwise nothing really special.
How do you see the future of exploring?
I think the 21st century is the golden age of exploration, and this is because of technology. They have been looking for Gengis Khan’s corpse for 750 years. Marco Polo was looking for him, he never found him, but we will in this century because of the new tools.
Doesn’t technology take away from the romantic idea of exploration?
“Romantic” is always going to be the same idea of finding something unknown, discovering it and then communicating it to those people who will be interested. The thrill will always be there.
What requirements does an expedition need to have in order to be awarded a “flag” by the Explorers Club?
You can’t get a flag unless you are in some way adding to the world’s knowledge, mostly science. In other words, this is not just an expedition, you are not exploring in a laboratory, but you are going out there to discover something in the field.
How do you see the future of the Club?
The future of the Club is very much tied to the future of exploration itself. We are going to have to transform this idea of exploration in that it involves a lot of new technology, which involves a lot of people, other than the traditional boots on the ground. Why do we think Columbus is an explorer? He went to the Americas but he didn’t discover anything. There were already 10 million people in North and South America. And when you begin to think like that, you realize a huge change is taking place and we are going the opposite way. Instead of an ethnographer visiting some little village in Tibet and interviewing everybody and finding whatever truth they find and then writing a nice paper from their vantage point, have the Tibetans come here on 70th Street and do an ethnography of us New Yorkers! What truths would they find and how would they criticize our society?Just as Einstein said, truth is based on the observer.
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Leading image: Explorers Club president Alan Nichols on an expedition. Thanks to photographer Samantha Casolari for the use of her image.