Where explorers have been rubbing elbows for 80 years. An exclusive Manhattan club plays host to the world's intrepid

It is a chilly Tuesday in New York. On the upper floors of a neo-Tudor mansion on East 70th Street in Manhattan, guests are filtering into a well-appointed gallery of the Lowell Thomas Building, headquarters of the Explorers Club. The conversation is lively -- partly, perhaps, because of the abundance of conversation pieces in the room. Glass cases lining the walls display scimitars from the Middle East, the seven-foot tusk of a narwhal, rare volumes of Napoleon Bonaparte's ``Description de L'Egypte,'' a petrified dinosaur egg from the Gobi Desert, and sundry other artifacts presented by explorers returning from expeditions.

Among the talkers are several distinguished scientists, noted explorers, and prominent scholars -- all awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor, Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest.

Sir Edmund is about to be be inaugurated as the club's honorary president, a title held by Lowell Thomas until his death in 1981. He enters, tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a green blazer and the official Explorers Club tie. Standing near him is David Swanson, a veteran of one of the world's toughest climbs, a direct ascent on the north face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps.

In the fall of 1986, Mr. Swanson plans to join an expedition that will attempt to resolve speculation that an earlier party may have reached Everest's summit before Sir Edmund. The party hopes to locate the bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared on Everest in 1924. Most mountaineers speculate that the pair were blown off the mountain before they ever reached its summit, though no one can be sure. Japanese climbers recently spotted a body on Everest's treacherous slopes. If it is one of the ill-fated climbers, Swanson and party are hoping his cameras are intact, for the 60-year-old film within may settle the controversy.

Some explorers seem to live for these kinds of arguments -- who did what first. It's the sort of thing that keeps conversation percolating in the august rooms of the Explorers Club. Indeed, some are still divided on the 75-year-old question of whether Robert E. Peary or Dr. Frederick Cook first reached the North Pole. Until the club's burgeoning ranks made it impractical, members traditionally settled, or at least debated, their differences at the ``long table.''

Jay Headly, chairman of the media committee, explains: ``Until a few years ago, the club was for men only and these men, virtually all of whom had achieved outstanding credentials in exploration, would come to the club and sit at the long table, which became the focal point for some of the most extraordinary sharing of field experiences, as well as the place for some very heated arguments.''

It was here that the likes of Fridtjof Nansen, Charles Lindbergh, Roald Amundsen, Peter Freuchen, and other intrepid figures recounted their exploits over caribou steaks and thimbleberry pie from the club's kitchen.

The Explorers Club of today claims about 3,000 members, mostly men, with a smattering of women, from 58 countries, predominantly America, Britain, and Australia. It provides invaluable resources for members undertaking expeditions: lecture and meeting rooms, a rich library with some 25,000 cataloged volumes on exploration and related sciences, and a collection of over 5,000 maps and charts.

The club was organized in the fall of 1905. Its seven founders agreed to exchange views regularly, give lectures, and promote exploration. In 1913, the club absorbed the membership of the Arctic Club, which had backed Peary on his North Pole expeditions.

Up through the '50s the club served as a common meeting ground for virtually all the important explorers of the early 20th century. During the last three decades its emphasis has shifted. The club has continued to include the well-known expedition leaders and field scientists of the day -- people like astronaut John Glenn; S. Dillon Ripley, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution; Kon-Tiki expeditioner Thor Heyerdahl; and zoo director Marlin Perkins -- though its scope has expanded to active support of educational and scientific programs.

At the same time, exploration itself has evolved significantly since the days of Peary and Amundsen. The globe's major geophysical landmarks have been explored. Today's explorer is more likely to be a scientist interested in research rather than an adventurer spurred on by the sheer physical challenge. Indeed, a modern-day expedition may be mounted to shed new light on any of several vexing questions: Are we facing another ice age or a warming trend? How do so-called ``weather factories'' such as the Aleutian Islands influence world climate?

To help answer such questions, the nonprofit Explorers Club sponsors a limited number of expeditions, or field research projects, each year.

Unlike some pioneering figures of old, today's explorers forgo dramatics. Indeed, the prevailing attitude at the Explorers Club is that an adventure is an expedition gone wrong.

This is not to say the members of the Explorers Club are a bunch of dispirited milquetoasts. Club president George Van B. Cochran wants no doubt about that. ``Yes, the old spirit of exploration is very much among us,'' he says. ``Most of our members do go off to remote places, but they're not adventurers who want to go to these places just to be going there. They go for the purpose of learning something in their field of interest.''

Another change is the nature of the obstacles facing explorers. In the past, the highest hurdles have always been geographical, but now political entanglements can be major impediments. Just ask Peter Bruchhausen.

A tall, thin oceanographer with a tangled shock of hair, Mr. Bruchhausen recently ran into a political roadblock when he and other members of the Explorers Club were denied landing rights in Argentina because the pilots of their chartered plane were British. Fortunately, neighboring Chile had no quarrel with Britain and permitted the plane to land, refuel, and gather provisions for their journey southward, where the party hoped to scale Antarctica's highest peak, Vinson Massif. Ironically, in Antarctica Bruchhausen found Argentine and British research stations peacefully coexisting.

While some explorers continue to enjoy the wild and woolly aspects of exploring, there are others who prefer the more cerebral kind of exploration.

George Michanowsky, the club archives chairman and a board member, is one of these. Mr. Michanowsky is an archaeoastronomer and is one of the few experts who reads cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings for their astronomical content. He has written a popular scientific book on the subject, ``The Once and Future Star.'' As a Sumerologist -- a scholar who specializes in the ancient Sumerian culture of the Mideast -- he has discovered important data on ancient clay tablets compiled in Lower Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. He has also planned and directed the world's highest-based aerial survey for archaeological purposes, in the Andes.

Michanowsky has a field day in the ``salt mines,'' his sobriquet for the archives room tucked away in the basement of the Explorers Club. At his finger tips are log books, news clippings, diaries, correspondence, photographs, and even early motion pictures of every major expedition of this century.

The club itself attracts a full representation of scientific disciplines as diverse as ethology, entomology, and ethnology.

Like most of her explorer-colleagues, Anna C. Roosevelt appreciates the exposure to a variety of scientific fields afforded by the club. ``The trend in science is interdisciplinary,'' she says. ``The Explorers Club reflects that. It's the only forum I know where all kinds of scientists get together and actually mingle.''

Dr. Roosevelt, curator of the Museum of the American Indian in New York and great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt, was one of the first women admitted after the club opened its ranks to them in 1981. Since then, around 50 women have become members, including astronaut Sally K. Ride.

Roosevelt characterizes the new explorer: equal parts researcher and adventurer. Currently, she is involved in the archaeological excavation of an ancient Indian mound on the Amazon.

The club also generates good public relations through the work of members like Jim Fowler, frequent co-host with Marlin Perkins on television's ``Wild Kingdom'' and a regular guest on ``The Tonight Show.'' He has set up a foundation, based in the club itself, committed to preserving wildlife and educating the public on wildlife issues.

What kind of person will take up the challenge of exploration today? ``One in a hundred,'' says Archivist Michanowsky, probably understating the facts. ``That is the rarity of the person who possesses the spark that ignites the spirit of exploration. What caused Peary to run for the pole or Amelia Earhart to circumnavigate the globe? Chalk it up to the essential human drive to see what's over the next hill.''

He adds, ``The life of an explorer is an inconvenient life, a crazy life, but it is this inspired absurdity that moves human history off center.''

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