On a beautiful early autumn day, our team of five (including two professional mountain guides) scaled a pinnacle called South Sixshooter Peak in southern Utah. The presenter, who happened to be a pretty good golfer, was scared out of his wits as we hauled him whimpering and sniveling up three pitches of 5.6 rock (a beginner route, in layman's terms). On a three-foot sandstone gangplank just below the summit, tied into rock anchors with our climbing ropes, he and I took turns launching balls into the desert off a scrap of AstroTurf we had packed up to our perch in the sky. "That felt . . . ," he started to declare after his best shot; then he lost it, as his voice bent in a wailing giggle, "unbelievable!"
On camera, I was titled "Dave Roberts, Mountain Golf Creator." Alas, I could hardly claim that distinction. Fresh off my hijinks in the Austrian Tirol, I had traveled to Hüttenberg to interview Heinrich Harrer, just as the film based on his book, Seven Years in Tibet, was about to be released. One of the great climbers of the century, member of the legendary party that made the first ascent of the Eiger north face in 1938, Harrer, at eighty-five, was a hero of mine. When I mentioned our three-irons off the summit of the Gamshag, he waved his hand dismissively. Decades before, Harrer and some alpine cronies had invented their own form of Mountain Golf, bashing balls through woods and across talus slopes as they raced each other through a course that traversed vast tracts of the local massif.
In 1952, at the age of forty, with his landmark ascents behind him, Harrer had first taken up golf. The man was such a gifted athlete and driven competitor that within six years he had won the Austrian national championship.
One day Harrer took Maurice Herzog, the famous French mountaineer who had lost all his toes and fingers to frostbite while making the storied first ascent of Annapurna, out golfing. Herzog was pleased to find he could wrap the stubs of his fingers around a club shaft and essay a reasonable facsimile of a swing. On one of their first outings together, Harrer knocked home one of the six holes in one of his career. No less competitive, full of the noblesse oblige that had driven him up Annapurna, Herzog murmured, "That was rather well done, Heinie"—assuming, evidently, that within a few weeks he would be plugging aces himself. Then mayor of Chamonix, Herzog, hooked on his new sport, went home and ordered the expansion of the funky little nine-hole town course into the Robert Trent Jones eighteen-hole gem that today wends its way among the tortuous cataracts and abrupt precipices of that most conservative of mountain villages.
As perhaps Harrer and Herzog understood, given a few twists of fate, golf can prove every bit as dangerous a pastime as big-range mountaineering. This truth was made evident to me two years ago on the Lake Powell National Golf Course in Page, Arizona. On a glorious May morning, I was the first player to tee off, and for an hour I had the rambling course to myself. On number eight, a tricky dogleg, I hit a nice drive that inexplicably funneled left and came to rest two inches under water in a thoroughly bogus artificial lake carved into the desert just to frustrate good rounds like the one I was starting to have.
I knelt on the edge of the lake and reached in for my ball, failing to notice the rubber skin that sealed the body of water in place like a giant diaphragm. Just as I grabbed my Top-Flite, I slowly slid into the lake on all fours, suffering total immersion. "Oh, well," I thought as I got to my feet, "in the desert heat, I'll dry off in half an hour." I took a step, only to have my feet go out from under me as though I were wearing roller skates. The diaphragm was as slick as ice.
For various reasons, I have never learned how to swim. Thus a predicament that would have meant only a minor nuisance to a natatorially competent athlete abruptly grew life-threatening for me. The more desperately I thrashed, the deeper I slid—soon I was literally in over my head.
Two greens away, a foursome was putting out. Never in forty years of climbing had I called for a rescue, but now I bellowed at the top of my lungs, "Help! Help! I can't get out!" The golfers glanced over in irritation, as if some drunken loony who had blundered onto the course was trying to distract them from lining up their putts; then they went back to their business. In the meantime, I rescued myself with a Herculean lunge that allowed me to seize a hank of rope on shore that anchored the diaphragm in place.
Not only can golf be perilous—at its best, it partakes of the heroic quest to unravel the unknown that has driven millennia of terrestrial exploration. In 1993, on assignment for National Geographic, I spent a month in Egypt with archaeologist Mark Lehner, the world's leading authority on the Sphinx, as we worked on a story about the Old Kingdom. Burned out after weeks of crawling through dusty shafts deep inside pyramids, of staring at hieroglyphic texts that invoked forgotten gods, a group of us betook ourselves one afternoon to the venerable if scruffy nine-hole course adjoining the Mena House Hotel, just north of the Giza Plateau—at the time one of only three golf courses in Egypt.
Lehner had never played before, and now he had the other three of us in stitches as he would whiff on several vicious swings before clocking the ball sideways over the fence into Cairo traffic. A born clown, he put on a show of mimicking the mannerisms of some particularly fussy pro he must once have seen on television. Now, on the ninth tee, Lehner solemnly positioned his ball. He took two measured practice swings, then stepped up to address the spheroid. The clubhead waggled; Lehner peered down the fairway, then over his shoulder at the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which loomed above us in the east. Another look down the fairway, then another glance up at the pyramid. Fairway, pyramid, fairway, pyramid. . . .
Suddenly Lehner dropped his driver. His eyes were wild. "Guys!" he exclaimed. "We have to dig here!" He pointed furiously at his teed-up ball, still awaiting impact. "Right here! The valley temple of Khufu—it's got to be right here!"
In that moment, Lehner was suggesting he had solved a riddle that had plagued Egyptologists for two centuries—for Khufu's valley temple, the portal through which celebrants had debarked from the Nile 4,500 years ago to begin their awestruck procession toward the pharaoh's gargantuan tomb, had never been located.