Barrow’s Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Downright Lunacy
Antarctica: Firsthand Accounts of Exploration and Endurance
Let Heroes Speak: Antarctic Explorers
Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole
The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk
In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic
Great Exploration Hoaxes
The Mountains of My Life
“When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of those places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.”
—Marlow, in Heart of Darkness
The glamour of the North Pole was only briefly off when Conrad was writing his story in the 1890s—perhaps because of the ungentlemanly bickering between rival expeditions—and it was on again within a decade. In the opening years of the twentieth century, the great vision of a commercial link between Europe and China through a Northwest Passage had turned out to be a delusion, but the race for the North and South Poles was as much a patriotic obsession as the space race was fifty years later. Now the poles have been crossed, recrossed, mapped in detail, and even partially colonized. Seven different nations maintain research stations around the edge of Antarctica; there is a permanent American base at the South Pole itself, and regular cruise ships take tourists to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to admire the penguins. At the opposite end of the world, the Arctic is ringed with Early Warning systems and they are drilling for oil not far from where would-be discoverers of the Northwest Passage perished.
Even so, the frozen wastes have reasserted their hold on the public imagination. Nearly a dozen books on polar exploration have recently been published with “white” or “ice” in their title, and one of them, Dr. Jerri Nielsen’s Ice Bound, even made it onto the best-seller list.1 In part, this may have been provoked by our anxiety about global warming: the icecaps are melting and the survival of the creatures they support, such as polar bears and emperor penguins, is becoming steadily more chancy. But it is remoteness and adventure rather than social conscience that give such books their appeal. In his introduction to the excellent Modern Library Exploration Series, which is gradually reissuing out-of-print classics of the genre, the editor, John Krakauer, quotes Paul Zweig:
The oldest, most widespread stories in the world are adventure stories, about human heroes who venture into the myth-countries at the risk of their lives, and bring back tales of the world beyond men…. It could be argued…that the narrative art itself arose from the need to tell an adventure; that man risking his life in perilous encounters constitutes the original definition of what is worth talking about.2
The polar regions are an unfailing source of peril: they are frozen deserts as hostile, hard to get to, and hard to survive in as the vertical deserts of the high mountain ranges, and they hold our imagination now just as firmly as they held the Romantics’ two centuries ago. At that time, when they were unexplored and barely even charted, they seemed nature at its most sublime. When the American explorer Charles Wilkes probed the coast of Antarctica around 1840, he drew on Gothic romance and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” to describe the marvels he had seen:
Some of the bergs were of magnificent dimensions, one-third of a mile in length, and from one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet in height, with sides perfectly smooth, as though they had been chiselled. Others, again, exhibited lofty arches of many-coloured tints, leading into deep caverns, open to the swell of the sea, which rushing in, produced loud and distant thunderings. The flight of birds passing in and out of these caverns, recalled the recollection of ruined abbeys, castles, and caves, while here and there a bold projecting bluff, crowned with pinnacles and turrets, resembled some Gothic keep. A little farther onwards would be seen a vast fissure, as if some powerful force had rent in twain these mighty masses. Every noise on board, even our own voices, reverberated from the massive and pure white walls. These tabular bergs are like masses of beautiful alabaster: a verbal description of them can do little to convey the reality to the imagination of one who has not been among them.
This wild and untouched landscape was the ideal Romantic inspiration and perfect setting for Romantic fantasies. The Ancient Mariner’s fateful albatross appears out of the polar fog. Dr. Frankenstein is rescued while sledding across the ice in pursuit of his monster and tells his improbable story to the captain of ship northbound out of Archangel toward the pole. As far as the Romantics were concerned, the polar wastes were as far as they could get from the bewigged and powdered polite society of the Augustan Age, and sublime enough to justify their wildest imaginings.
Although sublimity is no longer what we are after, we have our own modern version of Augustan constriction. In place of wigs and corsets and elaborately codified manners, we are constricted by comfort. We live in climate-controlled environments, with labor-saving devices and effortless travel, where everything from sex to Singapore noodles can be instantly available at the end of a telephone or the click of a mouse. Exercise has become an optional, after-hours, and often expensive recreational activity, something to do in the gym or the pool. Thomas Hardy’s heroes and heroines walked, as a matter of course, distances that nowadays only professional athletes would contemplate. In these circumstances, privation and danger acquire a glamour all their own; extreme sports like sky-diving and bungee-jumping become popular. Hence, too, the fascination of the polar wastes: although airplanes and radio have made them less inaccessible than they were, they are among the few places left that are utterly without comfort and where nothing can be taken for granted.
This has always been one of their greatest attractions. Explorers are driven by the unappeasable need to peer over the next horizon, “To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars,” which the English biographer J.R.L. Anderson, with Tennyson in mind, called “the Ulysses factor.” For most of them, hardship is the price they pay, more or less willingly, for their curiosity and ambition, but even the intrepid Captain Cook was appalled by Antarctica. In a journal included in the late Charles Neider’s Antarctica, a comprehensive anthology of firsthand accounts of Antarctic exploration and an excellent introduction to the subject, Cook has this to say about his first contact with the southernmost continent:
I, who had ambition not only to go farther than anyone had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption; as it, in some measure, relieved us; at least, shortened the dangers and hardships inseparable from the navigation of the southern polar regions.
Cook had every reason to be scared; the little wooden three-master in which he was circumnavigating the globe in the 1770s was not built to withstand pressure from the polar ice pack. Even so, he went back three more times, and each time was thwarted by the ring of ice that encircles the Antarctic continent. In Let Heroes Speak, which is part anthology, part meticulous reconstruction of the first 150 years of Antarctic exploration, Michael H. Rosove quotes Cook’s gloomy conclusion:
The risque one runs in exploring a coast, in these unknown and icy seas, is so very great, that I can be bold enough to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done; and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored. Thick fogs, snow storms, intense cold, and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous, must be encountered; and these difficulties are greatly heightened, by the inexpressibly horrid aspect of the country; a country doomed by Nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie buried in everlasting snow and ice.
The implacable hostility that defeated Captain Cook was precisely what drove later polar explorers on. For them, hardship was an end in itself. The great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen wrote in his autobiography that his childhood inspiration had been the adventures and tragic fate of Sir John Franklin, who disappeared mysteriously in search of the Northwest Passage: they
thrilled me as nothing I had ever read before. What appealed to me most was the sufferings that Sir John and his men had to endure. A strange ambition burned within me, to endure the same privations…. I decided to be an explorer.
Amundsen was the twentieth century’s most successful explorer: he was the first man to find a way through the Northwest Passage (it took him four years, between 1903 and 1906, and at the end he declared it useless); in 1912, he was the first to reach the South Pole; in 1926, he and two companions made the first crossing of the north polar ocean, which—in view of the squabbling among rival claimants—probably made him the uncontested first discoverer of the North Pole, even though he traveled in an Italian dirigible, not on foot.
Yet privation figures hardly at all in Amundsen’s narratives. On the contrary, the strangest thing about his account of his journey to the South Pole is its cheerfulness. It seems never to have occurred to him that he might fail. Being Norwegians, he and his companions had been brought up to cope with snow and ice. Extreme cold did not seem to bother them; they knew how to ski and drive a dogsled, and they took the dangers so much for granted that even their bad moments, which were many, became a source of pleasure. For example, when the runner of one of the sleds partially tipped into a crevasse and the team’s photographer took his time setting up his bulky camera to record the scene, Amundsen comments:
I mention this little incident just to show how one can grow accustomed to anything in this world. There were these two—Wisting and Hassel—lying over a yawning, bottomless abyss, and having their photograph taken; neither of them gave a thought for the serious side of the situation. To judge from the laughter and jokes we heard, one would have thought their position was something quite different.
More important, Amundsen’s planning, timing, and preparation were faultless. He worked out every detail in advance in order to ensure that everyone, including the dogs, would be as protected and well-fed as possible. This, for instance, is how Amundsen describes the typical end of a grueling day moving over difficult ice: they set up their tent (“It looks cosy enough”), then set about their three-course evening meal—first soup, then pemmican, then
Dr. Neilson developed breast cancer during her winter at the South Pole. Since she was the station's only doctor she had to perform biopsies on herself and administer her own chemotherapy. She is an exceptionally brave and resolute woman, but her chatty narrative, full of details about her failed marriage and estranged children, lets her down. Conventional "human interest" seems oddly out of place at the South Pole, where inhuman disinterest reigns.↩
The more recent additions to the series include the first English translation of The Mountains of My Life by the great Italian climber Walter Bonatti, and David Roberts's sly and well-researched Great Exploration Hoaxes, which casts doubt on, among others, the polar heroes Peary and Byrd. The series also includes the first English translation of the Russian writer Valerian Albanov's In the Land of White Death, a wonderfully lively, almost tender account of an early-twentieth-century disaster in the Siberian Arctic, and the subsequent endless journey on foot to safety, which only two survived. Albanov, who died in 1919, must have been an unusually gifted writer because his account reads exceptionally well despite being a translation of a French translation of a German translation of the original Russian.↩
Dr. Neilson developed breast cancer during her winter at the South Pole. Since she was the station’s only doctor she had to perform biopsies on herself and administer her own chemotherapy. She is an exceptionally brave and resolute woman, but her chatty narrative, full of details about her failed marriage and estranged children, lets her down. Conventional “human interest” seems oddly out of place at the South Pole, where inhuman disinterest reigns.↩
The more recent additions to the series include the first English translation of The Mountains of My Life by the great Italian climber Walter Bonatti, and David Roberts’s sly and well-researched Great Exploration Hoaxes, which casts doubt on, among others, the polar heroes Peary and Byrd. The series also includes the first English translation of the Russian writer Valerian Albanov’s In the Land of White Death, a wonderfully lively, almost tender account of an early-twentieth-century disaster in the Siberian Arctic, and the subsequent endless journey on foot to safety, which only two survived. Albanov, who died in 1919, must have been an unusually gifted writer because his account reads exceptionally well despite being a translation of a French translation of a German translation of the original Russian.↩