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Book Review: Becoming the First American to Complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam

This new memoir by Ryan Waters, who in 2014 became the first American to complete the Explorer's Grand Slam, focuses more on the adventurer than on his adventures.

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Today, the Seven Summits are a relatively common—almost cliché—tour of each continent’s highest peak. But if you climb all seven peaks and then also make unsupported and unassisted ski expeditions (without kites) to the North and South Poles, you’ve done what’s called the Explorer’s Grand Slam. This is what Ryan Waters accomplished in 2014, after more than a decade of effort, becoming the ninth person—and first American—to do so. 

In his new book, An American’s Grand Slam: A True Adventurer’s Unlikely Journey, co-written with Hudson Lindenberger, Waters takes us along his journey from his football-playing childhood in Georgia to his career as a professional climbing guide and polar explorer who has summited multiple 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen and skied across some of the most solitary places on earth. Part memoir, part travelog, Waters’s eclectic book relates his upbringing, professional development, and experiences on the seven summits, both polar expeditions, and multiple 8,000-meter peaks—and it does so in the carefree, humorous, and frank prose style you might expect from a former football player, fraternity guy, and self-described dirtbag. 

As Waters puts in the title, his path was an unlikely one. His first encounter with climbing came not through a gym or a crag but the Hollywood film K2, which he watched during his senior year of high school. After college and a brief stint in the corporate world, he took a job as an instructor with the North Carolina Outward Bound School, racked up some preliminary mountaineering experiences, and eventually assembled enough credentials to get a job working for Outward Bound’s Patagonia Program. It was through this program that Waters met his future business partner, Dave Elmore, with whom he founded Mountain Professionals—and it was during that first season in South America that Waters climbed Aconcagua with Elmore, officially beginning his seven summits journey.

But Waters didn’t yet suspect he’d climb all seven summits, much less complete the Grand Slam. Instead, he pursued other objectives, slowly building up guide experience. A 2003 expedition to Nepal to climb one of Everest’s neighbors, Pumori (23,494ft), helped get him an invite to guide Everest from the Tibetan side in 2004, which then gave him access to guide other 8,000-meter peaks. (He’s done Cho Oyu and Broad Peak without supplemental oxygen, and Lhotse with it.)

While guiding Cho Oyu in 2007, Waters met Cecilie Skog, the Norwegian climber and polar explorer who was the first woman to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam. Two years later, she invited Waters to participate in a cross-continent Antarctic mission—helping him transfer his skills from the mountains to the Poles. The plan for the trip: ski unsupported across the Antarctic continent without the aid of kites, something no one had yet done. They succeeded and, later, started up a romantic relationship. Waters’ struggle to balance his relationship with Cecilie with his love of adventure becomes a major theme of the book.

Then more mountains, more stories, more trips. My personal favorite was, surprisingly, not a climbing scene. Instead it’s when Waters joined polar explorer Eric Larsen for the 2014 unsupported expedition from coast to the North Pole, a 53-day epic that involved rafting their sleds across 50-yard-wide leads, swimming the Arctic open water in dry suits, and fighting to ski across ice that constantly floated in the wrong direction. (It’s a trip that may no longer be possible with climate change, which is something Larsen and Waters intended to highlight.) 

From frostbite and avalanches to polar bears and crevasse fields, An American’s Grand Slam is a richly textured—if a bit scattered—chronicle of one man’s mountain and polar expeditions. Thick with summit celebrations and run-ins with billionaires, plane hijackings (we won’t spoil too much) and mountain rescues, the book is also sprinkled with striking moments when Waters stops to consider the beauty and meaning of the landscapes into which he’s thrust himself. But Waters is at his most compelling when he dives into the logistics and mental challenges that characterize these expeditions; however, due to its fast pace and checklist-style, the reader never spends quite enough time in any one place (except, enjoyably, the polar expeditions). Instead, Waters exhaustively chronicles his journey, devoting significant space to his struggle to balance romantic relationships with career goals, the prerogatives of a guide with his own desire to pursue unencumbered adventure.

So who’s this book for? If you’re interested in getting a taste of what these expeditions are like, or if you’re a young mountaineer considering guiding professionally, Waters’s emotional frankness and emphasis on trip logistics can help inform your decision. But if you’re looking for a romantic or mystical exploration of the role mountains play in our lives, or, conversely, you want a nitty-gritty primer on expedition logistics, you’ll need to look elsewhere. 

Mostly, if you want to read about Ryan Waters—about his journey from regular joe to the seven summits and both the world’s Poles—this is the place to go.