Ice Capades

Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Downright Lunacy

by Fergus Fleming
Grove, 512 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Antarctica: Firsthand Accounts of Exploration and Endurance

edited by Charles Neider
Cooper Square Press, 460 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Let Heroes Speak: Antarctic Explorers

by Michael H. Rosove
Naval Institute Press, 320 pp., $36.95

Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole

by Dr. Jerri Nielsen
Talk Miramax Books, 362 pp., $23.95

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk

by Jennifer Niven
Hyperion, 432 pp., $14.95 (paper)

In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic

by Valerian Albanov
Modern Library, 205 pp., $21.95

Great Exploration Hoaxes

by David Roberts
Modern Library, 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Mountains of My Life

by Walter Bonatti
Modern Library, 576 pp., $14.95 (paper)

“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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.