Explorers’ Adventure in the Mustang Caves

Last Thursday, October 3, a National Geographic Live audience in Washington, D.C. got a taste of 21st-century exploration from three modern explorers: climbers Peter Athans and Cory Richards, and archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer.  The three were reporting on their latest expedition to Nepal’s Mustang Valley, where they have been investigating a centuries-old complex of tombs and man-made caves discovered by Athans in 2007 on the side of a steep cliff overlooking the Kali Gandaki River.  The site’s location makes it all but inaccessible to archaeologists, so climbers like Richards, who did double duty photographing the expedition for an article in the October issue of National Geographic, have to serve as the “eyes” of the expedition, taking direction from Aldenderfer and reporting back to him via camera and walkie-talkie.

For the climbers, working on an archaeological expedition meant extending themselves beyond their usual climbing skills to learn how to recognize, handle, and describe invaluable artifacts and bones, always bearing in mind the importance of preserving the physical context of each discovery.  But for Richards, the opportunity to make a unique contribution to our scientific knowledge of the sites’ various ancient inhabitants made Mustang Valley more than just a climbing expedition.   “This is far more rewarding,” he told an audience member when asked to compare his experience in Mustang with his historic first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (documented in his award-winning film “Cold”). “Climbing in the winter is great, it’s a personal challenge, but contributing to a scientific record and bringing that [knowledge] back, that’s far more important, always.”

Seeing the chemistry between the three of them on stage, as they collaborated on answers to audience questions, made me think of the balance of different skills and personalities needed to make a effective team: Athans’ poetic vision, knowledge of the land and its culture, and calm leadership, Aldenderfer’s scientific seriousness, quiet integrity and comprehensive knowledge, and Richards’ passion for the mission and willingness to take real, albeit calculated, risks in the name of science.  Watching them together made me think of something else Cory Richards said: “This is what National Geographic is about – the bridge between science, culture and adventure that makes us care about this world that we keep exploring.”


More From National Geographic Live
Join us in Grosvenor Auditorium at the Geographic’s Washington, D.C. headquarters for more reports from the front lines of exploration with our Explore More and Quest for Adventure series. Or enjoy conversations between Nat Geo explorers and Nobel Laureates with our series The Big Idea.