“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

the cups are carefully scraped, and the enjoyment of bread and water begins. It is easy to see, too, that it is an enjoyment—greater, to judge by the pleasure on their faces, than the most skilfully devised menu could afford. They positively caress the biscuits before they eat them. And the water—ice-cold water they all call for—this also disappears in great quantities, and procures, I feel certain from their expression, a far greater pleasure and satisfaction than the finest wine that was ever produced. The Primus hums softly during the whole meal, and the temperature in the tent is quite pleasant.

Amundsen was writing in the after-glow of a great triumph—he had planted the Norwegian flag at the South Pole and brought his entire party safely home. Although the journey was in no way as easy as he makes it sound, by the end of it the Norwegian team had actually gained weight.

It was a remarkable achievement, but that is not why people go to—or read about—the frozen wastes. On the contrary, most of the books are records of failures. Shackleton’s great epic, South, is about surviving a disaster, and in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s masterpiece, The Worst Journey in the World, first published in 1922,3 three men, including the author, struggled through weeks of the coldest weather anyone has ever endured, before them or since, in order to collect a few penguin eggs, which the scientists back home didn’t want. The true spirit of polar exploration was summed up by Captain Scott when he arrived at the South Pole a month after the Norwegians and found their flag fluttering over the tent Amundsen had named “Polheim”: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Within a few weeks he and his comrades were frozen to death, three of them trapped in a blizzard only a few miles from their supply depot.

Heroic failure—the cult of the good loser—is a very British specialty and perhaps that is why polar exploration, in the nineteenth century, became a national obsession. The poles were England’s Moby Dick—an impossible quest, a killer fantasy that demanded sacrifice—although the man who got it all going, John Barrow, Second Secretary at the Admiralty between 1804 and 1845, was in no way a visionary. In Barrow’s Boys, a witty, sharply written, and well-researched account of Barrow’s long reign (he was eighty-one when he retired), Fergus Fleming calls him “Britain’s first true civil servant,” “a model of dullness” on the outside, but underneath ambitious, dogged, clever, and manipulative. He made himself a minor reputation as a geographer, having served under diplomats in China and South Africa and written books about the countries, but he carved a major career out of exploration. Not that he himself went anywhere once his feet were securely under a desk in the Admiralty, but he had a passion for filling in blank spaces on the map—in Africa as well as at the two poles—and he had the resources to put his dreams into practice.

In fact, he could pick and choose from virtually the whole Royal Navy, which had become the largest fleet in the world during the Napoleonic Wars. When the wars ended, Fleming writes, “the ships were laid up ‘in ordinary’ and the seamen were simply thrown back onto the streets from which they had often been press-ganged in the first place.” But the officers were career men, harder to dispose of, and their numbers gradually increased until there was “one officer for every four men. But 90 percent of these officers had nothing to do…. The average age of an Admiral was seventy-six. Below them on the list hundreds of grey-haired captains drew their half-pay with autumnal melancholy. In 1846, of 1,151 officers, only 172 were in full employment.”

For Barrow, these ambitious, restless, underused, bored men were an inexhaustible pool of talent. They would sail no matter how niggardly the sums Barrow gouged out of the Treasury, and being in the Royal Navy, with its tradition of “rum, buggery and the lash,” they were inured to deprivation and brutality. At the same period, the great British public schools were developing a similar code of fortitude—without the rum. The result was a host of young men to whom hardship came so naturally that the relentless hostility of the polar regions seemed like light relief after what they had already endured while they were growing up.

The most successful of Barrow’s boys was James Ross, who in 1831 discovered the magnetic north pole—hundreds of miles south of the geographical pole—and, ten years later, was the first to break through the guardian icepack into the Antarctic sea that now bears his name. (He also has an island, an ice shelf, and a rare seal named after him.) The others, in comparison, were failures. William Parry made three unsuccessful stabs at the Northwest Passage and one at the North Pole. John Ross, James’s uncle, aborted his first attempt at the Northwest Passage and was icebound for four winters on his second. They were following Barrow’s orders, but Barrow, Fleming writes, “was never quite right. When he had a geographical opinion it was frequently the wrong one. And when he had no opinion he formed one on the wildest of conjectures suggested by others. Sometimes he hit the spot; more often he missed it.” And when the expeditions he sent out failed to validate his whimsical theories he savaged them anonymously in the Quarterly Review.

The most famous of Barrow’s boys was Sir John Franklin, who in 1819 led an overland expedition to explore the north coast of Canada between the mouths of the Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers and, Barrow hoped, to link up with Parry’s ships on their way through the Northwest Passage. As Fleming describes him, he was also the most improbable:

John Franklin was a beefy, genial giant who literally could not hurt a fly. He was formal, painfully shy and abnormally sensitive: to order, let alone witness, a flogging made him tremble from head to toe…. [He] was brave, determined and would obey orders to the letter…. The deciding factor, however, was Franklin’s charm. Everyone who met him agreed that this was his outstanding characteristic—it was impossible not to like him…. It can only have been Franklin’s charm that won him the leadership of the 1819 Canadian expedition because he had nothing else to recommend him. Aged thirty-three, he was overweight and suffered from a poor circulation that left his fingers and toes cold even in an English summer. He was unfit and had no experience of land travel. He could not hunt, canoe or trek. Three meals a day were a must; he could not move without tea; and even when he could move he could manage no more than eight miles a day unless he was carried.

As it happened, Franklin walked many hundred miles during the three years he was away, although the overland expedition was an unqualified disaster: half the men starved to death, the others survived by eating lichen—they called it tripes de roche in fond remembrance of French gastronomy—then they ate their shoes, and some of them finished by eating each other. On his return to England, Franklin found himself famous; he was “the man who ate his boots.” Twenty years later, in 1845, he sailed back to the Arctic on another futile attempt to discover the Northwest Passage and disappeared completely. His formidable wife refused to believe he was dead and it took another nine years to find traces of the doomed expedition. Meanwhile, rescue missions set out regularly, though not always in the most likely directions. “In later years,” Fleming writes, “when a man said he was going to look for Franklin—whose legend was perpetuated for the purpose—it was understood that he was trying for the North Pole.”

One of the most curious aspects of the early expeditions is the sheer inappropriateness of their gear. Cold-weather clothing was primitive and, as naval officers, the leaders felt themselves so superior to the native Inuits that they learned almost nothing about survival from them. Eventually, the more savvy explorers took to wearing fur outer garments, but a pigheaded few stuck to cocked hats and brass buttons, reluctant to relinquish the insignia of rank:

Kennedy and Bellot conducted their explorations in conditions of disparate harmony: Kennedy soldiering on in his thick furs while Bellot hopped about in a nice ensemble of salmon-pink tunic and tall sea-boots, showing with each bound just a hint of white leggings.

The naval belief in doing everything the hard way explains a lot about Britain’s heroic failures and eventually contributed to the death of Captain Scott and his companions. Even before Barrow had sent out his first expedition to the Arctic, he could have learned how to do it successfully from William Scorseby, a self-taught but extraordinarily shrewd scientist and inventor, who was also the most successful whaler in Britain. He had fished in Baffin Bay for years and understood the strange movements of the Arctic Ocean; he knew the Greenland coast and the people who lived there and what was needed to survive in extreme cold. He also knew how to travel in it—with dogs and light sleds, as the Inuit did. But there were no British officers who knew how to handle dog teams, and anyway Scorseby wasn’t a Navy man. (Barrow scuttled his proposals for the Northwest Passage—Scorseby thought it possible but pointless—then published them anonymously as his own.)

The Royal Navy had no sled dogs, but they had plenty of enlisted men who did what they were told and needed to be protected by their betters from idleness. Hence the British tradition of man-hauling. Scott took Mongolian ponies to the Antarctic, but the conditions were too harsh for them and most ended up in the cooking pot. While Amundsen’s party cruised to the South Pole behind their dog teams, Scott’s men harnessed up Royal Navy– style and dragged their ponderous, overloaded sleds themselves, imagining that unrelenting hard labor and bone-weary exhaustion were badges of honor.

Maybe they were and maybe that, finally, is why people go to these places. As Charles Neider wrote of his first flight to McMurdo Sound, in 1969, “You and your fellow passengers sit in two rows on red canvas seats, facing each other across a fence of strapped-down seabags, and wonder what Antarctica will be like and what you will be like in it.” What you will often be, according to the early explorers, is bored. When James Ross battened down for another Arctic winter, he wrote:

The prison door was shut upon us…. Amid all its brilliancy, this land, the land of ice and snow, has ever been, and ever will be a dull, dreary, heart-sinking, monotonous waste, under the influence of which the very mind is paralyzed, ceasing to care or think…[It] is but the view of uniformity and silence and death…where nothing moves and nothing changes, but all is forever the same, cheerless, cold and still.

This is boredom of a special kind, however—a kind that can kill unless you pay attention—and that, too, is part of its attraction, especially to the British. They didn’t go because they knew about snow and ice—snowfalls are as rare as heat waves in England. They went because they knew about hardship and suffering and valued fortitude—that famous stiff upper lip—above everything else. This kind of bravery has nothing to do with the chest-thumping Darwinism of Robert Service—“This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive;/That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive”—and it has everything to do with putting one foot monotonously in front of the other, with refusing to complain, and preserving as best you can good manners in nasty situations. During the nightmare winter expedition that became The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote mildly:

We were quite intelligent people, and we must all have known that we were not going to see the penguins and that it was folly to go forward. And yet with quiet perseverance, in perfect friendship, almost with gentleness those two men led on. I just did what I was told…. I wrote that night: “There is something after all rather good in doing something never done before.” Things were looking up, you see.

Cherry-Garrard’s style of resigned, low-key, almost docile courage died, more or less, with the hosts of young men who were slaughtered like cattle during World War I. In those days they called it “moral fiber” and it was impossible to thrive in the polar regions without it. For some, I suspect, it was—and is—also something very like depression, some quirk of nature or nurture that convinces them that the world is an unremittingly stern and hostile place and bleakness is their natural environment. People who think that way are never altogether easy with a comfortable, undemanding life, not because of the comforts but because they feel they are getting away with something, as though they were confidence tricksters creating an image they don’t deserve. Everyone else is taken in, but they know better, so they call their own bluff by going to harsh, unforgiving places where every sham, sooner or later, will be exposed.

Those who organize polar expeditions always have grand scientific excuses when they are looking for funds, but for the explorers themselves the point of it all is survival. In 1913, the Canadian naval ship Karluk set out toward the North Pole, was trapped in the ice off the northeast coast of Alaska, and drifted helplessly west for five months until she broke up off Wrangel Island in Siberia. The captain and an Inuit hunter went for help and eventually organized a rescue, but only twelve of the twenty-five on board survived. Jennifer Niven ends The Ice Master, her fine and lively account of the disaster, with a triumphant letter home by one of the lucky ones:

The one thing I wish this letter to do for me is to show you I am alive, and how much I am alive. Just think of it all of you—I am alive. And more than alive—I am living. None of you know what life is, nor will you ever know until you come as near losing it as we were.

Years ago, Punch, which used to be the prime source of British humor, published a cartoon of two explorers in what was then called “darkest Africa.” One of them is saying, “I came here to forget, but I can’t remember what.” For polar explorers the answer was always clear: they went to the worst places in the world in order to come back alive.

This Issue

August 9, 2001