Explorers never really go out of fashion, but the past year has seen an explosion of interest in the annals of discovery, like these tales of the conquest of Poles (North and South) and peaks.
Top of the World
The discovery on Mt. Everest earlier this year of the body of British mountaineer George Mallory capped a fascination with high-altitude perils that began with the terrible season recorded in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Mallory and climbing companion Andrew "Sandy" Irvine were last seen on June 8, 1924, launching a bid for the summit. It wasn't until this past spring, when a party of young Americans found his corpse, that Mallory's fate was known for sure.
Mallory wasn't the first Briton to meet his end in one of the more extreme spots on the planet: The British once took pride in a tradition of glorious failure. The most extreme example was probably Robert Falcon Scott, who in 1911 famously froze to death in his tent -- along with several of his party -- after their try at the South Pole disappeared in a blizzard of poor planning and execution. Scott's much better-prepared Norwegian competition, led by the very sensible Roald Amundsen, arrived at the Pole a good month before Scott's little band did -- and returned home safely to tell the tale.
This story of extremes -- of weather and of personality -- powers Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole (Modern Library, $14.95). The book, part of the new Modern Library Exploration Series edited by Jon Krakauer, caused a fury of protest in England when it first came out, for Huntford dumps a big bucket of cold water on the Scott flame.
What did "inept" mean in Scott's case? Crippling insecurity, shoddy preparation, almost laughably poor leadership skills, a bullheaded refusal to learn from the experiences of those who'd gone before him. He could have found some handy tips, for instance, in Heart of the Antarctic: Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909 (Carroll & Graf, $16.95), Ernest Shackleton's account of his failed attempt to gain the South Pole (he got within 97 miles of the goal). Scott had the book but seems to have learned nothing from it.
Based on the extensive evidence Huntford presents, Scott had no business commanding a ship, much less leading men into the Antarctic wastes. He refused to believe that dogs and skis offered the most efficient way of travelling in ice and snow, as several Scandinavian expeditions (and even a British maverick or two) had demonstrated. With almost no field experience in Polar regions -- or in any field, for that matter -- Scott relied on horrible advice from his patron Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, who "disparaged progress abroad, preferring homely obsolescence to foreign efficiency. It was almost inevitable that he should display a violent and irrational aversion to dogs as draught animals. Sir Clements had never driven dogs . . . he had no practical Polar experience at all." His opinions were the product of theory and emotion. Dogs, he said . . . `were useful to Greenland Eskimos and Siberians.' He advocated instead the grotesquely outmoded system of man-hauling" -- having men drag provision-laden sledges.
Though Scott did take a few dogs and skis along on the trip, he didn't know how to use them and didn't care to learn; he put his trust in man-hauling, in motorized sledges (one of which sank through the ice the moment it was unloaded from his ship Terra Nova), and in ponies (he preferred white ones, believing they fared better in extreme conditions). Amundsen, having grown up on skis -- and having Fridtjof Nansen, the father of modern Polar exploration, as his mentor -- knew the value of Nordic equipment and how to use it to get men to their destination. Unlike Scott, he paid attention to those who'd gone before. He worked at designing new skis, boots and bindings, at finding the best pemmican (the nasty-sounding but indispensable dried rations of the time), the best clothing (he took Eskimo-inspired togs), the best dogs, and the best men, chosen not only for their cold-climate skills but for their ability to get on together.
Scott's expedition fell apart in every way: Their gear was all wrong, they didn't know how to use it, and by the end most of them disliked their leader, with good reason. Imagine how they felt when they at last struggled their way to the pole, only to find Amundsen's flags and tent awaiting them: "We were not a very happy party tonight," said one. "Amundsen -- I must say that man must have his head screwed on right . . .The Norskies
. . . seem to have had a comfortable trip with their dog teams, very different to our wretched man-hauling." And the worst -- the doomed dash homeward -- was still, for the Englishmen, to come, a scene of wretchedness and despair that Huntford recreates in all its icy drama, down to Scott's dying attempts at spin control.
The Last Place on Earth is one of four titles launching the Exploration series. Each costs $14.95: La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West by the great 19th-century American historian Francis Parkman; Starlight and Storm: The Conquest of the Great North Faces of the Alps, French mountaineer Gaston Rebuffat's recreation of his famous climbs in the region following World War II; and Nansen's Farthest North, his account of the Arctic voyage he embarked on in 1893, when he and his crew set off in the ship Fram ("Forward" in Norwegian) and allowed the vessel to be frozen into the pack ice of the polar ice cap. "Two years into the expedition," Krakauer writes, "and still more than four hundred miles from his objective [the North Pole], Nansen realized that the drifting ice was not going to take the Fram all the way to the pole. Unfazed, he, along with a single companion and provisions for one hundred days, left the ship, determined to cover the remaining distance by dogsled, with no prospect of reuniting with the Fram for the return journey. The going was slow, perilous, and exhausting, but they got to within 261 statute miles of the pole before giving up and beginning a desperate, yearlong trudge back to civilization."
Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (Picador, $15) takes its title from the last words supposedly spoken by Capt. Laurence Edward Grace Oates, one of Scott's companions in futility, as he left the tent for the last time and went out to die: "I'm just going outside and I may be some time." (See Huntford's account, which casts some doubt on the story as recorded by Scott in his final diary entries.)
Spufford's book takes up the question "asked by every reader of the standard accounts of the great expeditions . . . why? Why did they do these insane things?" Here's Oates, wryly (and over-optimistically) writing to his mother on learning he's been tapped for Scott's venture: "Points in favor of going. It will help me professionally as in the army if they want a man to wash labels off bottles they would sooner employ a man who has been to the North Pole than one who had only got as far as the Mile End Road. The job is most suitable to my tastes. Scott is almost certain to get to the [South] Pole and it is something to say you were with the first party. The climate is very healthy although inclined to be cold . . . "
"Each chapter," Spufford writes, "is an archeology of the hazy love affair between the ice and the English." From the 18th-century origins of the concept of the sublime, "teaching travellers and spectators alike how to see frozen wastes," he moves on to the voyages of Capt. James Cook, who in 1775 sailed near South Georgia island in the south polar seas and had a sensible reaction: "I did not think it worth my while to go examine these places for it did not seem probable that any one would ever be benefited by the discovery." (Scott and his men certainly weren't.) Spufford looks at Frankenstein and its chase through the Arctic, along with other ice-bound literary efforts, as well as actual voyages and expeditions. Some of the explorers who capture his interest are William Parry, a Royal Navy officer who in 1827 became the first explorer to make an explicit try for the North Pole; Lt. James Clark Ross, discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole and many Antarctic features, including the Ross Sea, the Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror (named after two of his ships); and Capt. Sir John Franklin, who in 1845 found a North-West Passage, though he and the 128 men with him perished in the attempt. Spufford devotes a whole chapter to Franklin's wife, Lady Jane Franklin, and what it meant to be married to a 19th-century explorer -- not exactly a walk in the park.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.