Are you looking for a smart place to invest some money? Can't help you. Are you looking for an exciting place? You're in luck. I'm selling two items from a lively niche of the collectibles market known as "exploration artifacts"—a term for the equipment, journals, and other goods used by people like legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, Himalayan climbing great Sir Edmund Hillary, and 19th-century African bwana Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
This old stuff can be shockingly valuable. Last September, Christie's London, which has held special Exploration & Travel sales since 1996, auctioned off a 1,000-item collection of Stanley objects, books, maps, and photos. The entire lot went for more than $1.4 million, with individual items like the "water-stained map" he carried on the 1874-78 Anglo-American trans-Africa expedition selling for $120,000.
Also hot: anything used by the intrepid men who first explored the Arctic and Antarctic, thanks partly to ongoing fascination with Shackleton and his travails on and off the Endurance, his doomed, icebound ship. Last year, Christie's sold the Endurance's flag for $180,000. In 1999, it auctioned a notable collection of artifacts used by Capt. Robert F. Scott, the brave Englishman who died during a hellish 1912 return trip from the South Pole. Among other things, Christie's sold two briar pipes that belonged to Scott (for $13,976), eight linen ration bags ($17,700), and one dried biscuit—essentially, a saltine—for $6,336.
Given those numbers, the artifacts I have should fetch a hefty price when I auction them off for charity starting today on eBay—especially since they're Mount Everest-related, and the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's epochal first ascent arrives with a bang on May 29. Both are items carried to the top of Everest in 1996 by climber and writer Jon Krakauer, who immortalized that year's disastrous, deadly season into a feature for Outside magazine and then his 1997 best seller, Into Thin Air.
One (1) Charlet Moser 12-point crampon, complete with an attached name tag ("KRAKAUER") and a signed note from the author—who generously donated this item—attesting that he wore it to the summit. (Crampons are toothy boot attachments that help climbers crunch along safely on snow and ice, and this one looks pretty much like you'd expect: battered.)
One (1) scraggly pelt of white rabbit fur originally purchased at Hobby Lobby for a dollar. Krakauer took this to the top of the world as a souvenir for friends of his at Outside. After completing his ascent, he signed it with a black Sharpie pen like so:
SUMMIT OF MT. EVEREST
May 10, 1996
BROTHERS OF THE WAPITI (ASPIRING MEMBER)
Potential buyers should be aware that the fur, not unlike a cuddly pet, has a name: the Patch. It also has a few minor defects. It smells like a cat who slept on wet dirt too long, the leather side is dry and starting to crack (Mt. EVEREST now reads Mt. EV), and there's a pretty good chance that it carries a deadly curse.
Now then, on to the big question: How does one go about putting a price tag on—
Huh? You say you want to hear more about the deadly curse? Hmmm, you do have a collector's eye, because I believe this aspect of the Patch provides a special something that makes it extremely valuable. Nick Lambourn, a Christie's artifacts expert, seemed to agree when I e-mailed him a summary of the Patch's spooky origins.
"Fantastic story," he wrote back. "Sounds like that old play about the curse of a rabbit's paw or something on those lines."
Yes, it does. Here's the gist.
The Patch's genesis occurred roughly a year before the Everest disaster, during a summer week in 1995 when a group of five guys at Outside, including me, made plans to go on a camp-out. Unexpectedly, we were forced to work on Saturday that weekend, so our two-day excursion got spiked. That afternoon we left the office feeling hurt and vulnerable, and we soothed ourselves by stuffing our packs with booze and heading out for a surly one-nighter in the mountains above Santa Fe, N.M.
I'll spare you the frat boy details, except to say that the other four—Dave Allen, Dave Cox, Chris Czmyrid, and Casey Vandenoever—got really drunk while I kept it together and quietly journaled. What happened that night was weird, one of those Men Who Run With Some Other Men nature-boy freakouts that provide a horrifying peek into our species' primal essence. Among the highlights were a too-large campfire; a couple of guys elf-dancing in the flames; the sound of a recorder being played madly and insistently; and me adding some gravitas to the moment by extemporizing a poem narrated by a wounded elk who was angry at Man for beating up on Critters.
"I am Wapiti!" I cried, using the Shawnee word for the animal. "I come in peace to slake my thirst in your meadows, but you pierce my flanks with your weapons!"
We woke up the next day and, through the pain and confusion, realized that something special had happened. On the spot, we created a super-secret club called the Order of the Wapiti. As we told everybody at work on Monday, our solemn mission was to henceforth spend as much time as we could in the great outdoors, drinking.
The climax of the "Wapiti ethic" came the next October, when we devised an elaborate ritual designed to bring snow to the local ski area, which was parched by drought. Chris Czmyrid, a handy type who knew how to build model rockets, put together a 3-foot-high unit mounted on a big dowel. Using the dowel as his axis and Styrofoam balls purchased at Hobby Lobby, he turned the rocket into a chubby, launchable snowman sculpture. The idea was to send this ghostly imp into the late-night sky, thus seeding the clouds for a blizzard.
Nothing unusual about that, but there was a twist: Czmyrid also bought a white patch of rabbit fur at the Lobby, which he planned to use as a "launch pad" for the rocket. Why? He couldn't explain. Still can't. He just felt "compelled" to purchase the odious pelt.
On launch night we trooped up to the site of our original camp-out. Czmyrid set up everything, and we huddled near the rocket as he tapped raw wires together, trying to spark ignition off flashlight batteries. It didn't work. He tapped again. Still nothing. Then, in one of those savvy moves that make for appreciative chuckles at the emergency room, we shuffled closer to the rocket and leaned in to have a look.
Just then it went off—WHOOSH!—and I stagger-stepped backward, barely avoiding getting eyeballed as the craft screamed past my ear. Shaken, we searched the woods for traces of the snowman but found nothing. All that was left was the Patch, with an ugly, smoking hole burned in its middle. Within minutes snow started to fall. Hard.
You can probably guess the rest. In the spring of 1996, Krakauer came through Santa Fe just before heading to Everest. Czmyrid gave him the Patch and asked him to tote it to the top. He shared the Patch's jocular back story but probably didn't spend quite enough time emphasizing the important part: That it was an evil totem designed to trigger snowstorms.
We all know what happened on Everest that year. A huge blizzard raked the mountain on May 10, starting around 3 p.m. and eventually leading to the deaths of eight people. Back at Wapiti Central we did not, of course, find anything amusing about this, and nobody knew quite what to say. Connecting the Patch in any way to the disaster seemed silly, wrong, and disrespectful.
And yet ... well, you can't stop thoughts from entering your mind, and we were pretty creeped out, especially since Krakauer himself narrowly escaped. The Sherpas who make their living on Everest certainly take such superstitions seriously—they pray to the mountain before daring to take it on. Chances are, they wouldn't have been too happy if they'd known about the Patch.
But all that, thankfully, is in the past, and whatever its power, the Patch seems ready for retirement after several years of further misadventures that, I'm sorry to say, only the buyer gets to hear about. (You'll love the part when the Patch almost causes a plane wreck and then gets "lost" inside a Manhattan lesbian bar for two years.) In seasons past, just for the heck of it, I've occasionally jostled the ratty little rug when I want to conjure a snowstorm—which (ahem) always worked—but I tried it recently and got nothing.
This tells me the Patch has lost its mojo. This tells me it's safe enough for you to buy it, frame it, and hang it next to one of your Picassos or Warhols. Nick Lambourn estimated the Patch's auction price at $1,000, but we'll start the bidding at a more digestible $100. (Ditto with the crampon.) All proceeds will go to the American Himalayan Foundation—a San Francisco-based nonprofit that funds health-care and environmental work in the Himalayas—so don't be shy about running up the score. Anything less would be disrespecting the Patch, and I don't think we want to piss it off again.