My Friend the Adventure Writer

At press time Mike Finkel W’90 was reporting on the war in Afghanistan. Photo by John Byorth

When I tell my friend and former roomate Mike Finkel W’90 I’m writing a profile of him, the first thing he says after laughing uncontrollably is, “I’m not sure about the journalistic ethics of this.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll keep the flattery to a minimum.”

When you watch the tape of Mike Finkel’s 1988 appearance on Sale of the Century—a blink-and-you-missed-it Let’s Make A Deal imitator—“future adventure writer” is hardly the first phrase that comes to mind. Irritating geek? Possibly (“For each of my A’s last semester, I’ll take number 4!”). Fashion nightmare? Without a doubt (eggnog blazer, Ken Doll coif). Ivy League junior who didn’t know the name of the Virgin Mary’s husband? Sadly, yes.

But 13 years after Finkel left the NBC Studios in Burbank with wicker furniture, parquet flooring, and a painfully ugly serigraph of a sailboat racing across a giant sink (“It’s a beautiful piece,” he gushed on air), he has become one of America’s premier adventure journalists. “Desperate Passage,” his New York Times Magazine story about accompanying a group of Haitians on a perilous attempt to escape their homeland, earned him the 2000 Livingston Award for International Reporting and a coveted slot as a contributing writer at the magazine. In addition, the story appears in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Adventure Writing 2001 anthology.

Finkel’s work has also graced the pages of The Atlantic MonthlyEsquire, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, and Rolling Stone. And despite lethargic sales of his first book, Alpine Circus—“Fourteen people bought it,” he yuks, “including my mom” —he is mulling over a six-figure offer for his second book, tentatively titled Examinations of Exhaustion. “I’ve written several articles about both my own pursuit of exhaustion and other people’s, and I thought that a lot of these experiences could be blended into an 
interesting narrative.”

Like many Wharton students, Finkel figured he’d end up on Wall Street. But when he sold stories to both The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine during his senior year, he put his gray pinstripe suit in mothballs and went looking for a journalism job.

He received offers at GQ (staffers apparently hadn’t seen the Sale of the Century footage) and Skiing. “Against the advice of my father, I went with the job that sounded more fun, rather than the one that seemed more appropriate to a career in journalism.” In less than two years, Finkel had a regular column in Skiing, a position as contributing editor, and a dream assignment: spend a year as a ski bum, then write about it. 

He soon parlayed his work for Skiing into a globetrotting career as a freelance adventure writer. But recently, Finkel has used his peregrinations to tackle weightier topics.

For “Desperate Passage,” he joined 40 Haitian emigrants packed into the hold of the Believe in God, a tiny sailboat bound for the Bahamas. “If you were to ask a second-grader to draw a boat, the result would probably look a lot like the Believe in God,” he would later write. While Finkel and his fellow travelers huddled knee-deep in seawater laced with vomit, urine, and excrement, deckhands furiously worked a primitive pump to keep the ship afloat.

Eighteen hours into the trip—which, if completed, could have lasted well over a week—the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the boat. Finkel learned that the ramshackle sloop was on course to hit a reef in less than an hour. In all likelihood, the collision would have split the ship’s hull. As Finkel and his former shipmates watched from the deck of a Coast Guard cutter, the Believe in God dipped its mast into the ocean, then began to sink.

“A piece like that makes me say I’m not going to keep doing this,” Finkel says. “There’s no way in hell.” Yet moments later, he is detailing his next death-defying undertaking—scaling Cho Oyu, a 27,000-foot Himalayan peak. “Nine hundred people have reached the summit, but only 25 people have died on the mountain.” His tone implies that those sound like pretty good odds to him.

Adam Buckley Cohen C’90

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