Fishwrap Archive

Newport News, Va., Daily Press
Published: Sunday, January 10, 1999
Section: OUTLOOK
Page: I5

The greatest chillers ever

Polar exploration mushes ahead
in these releases

Antarctic book reviewBy DAVID LAWRENCE
Book Reviewer

To many, the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration died late in March 1912 with Robert Falcon Scott and two others in a blizzard-buffeted tent 11 miles from a life-saving supply depot on the icy wastes of Antarctica. But a recent gust of new and reprinted books reveals Scott's doomed party were neither the only, nor were they the last, heroes from the twilight of that age.

"A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole," by Diana Preston, is one of several new books out on Antarctic exploration. Preston chronicles Scott's life and two expeditions to Antarctica, naturally focusing on the final and fatal dash to the South Pole. The strength of Preston's narrative is in the way she recreates the dreadful conditions and the agony that Scott and his men -- Edgar Evans, Lawrence "Titus" Oates, Henry "Birdie" Bowers and Edward Wilson -- faced as weather, scurvy, malnutrition and the knowledge that they had been bested by Roald Amundsen all exacted a crushing toll.


Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole

By Diana Preston
Houghton Mifflin
Photographs. 269 pages. $25

Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

By Caroline Alexander
Photographs. 212 pages. $29.95

The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance

By Sir Ernest Shackleton
The Lyons Press
376 pages. $16.95 paperback

By Jennifer Armstrong
Random House
(For readers 10-14)
Photographs. 134 pages, $18

A True Story of Antarctic Survival

By Douglas Mawson
St. Martin's
Photographs. 438 pages. $27.95

Preston's narrative moves quickly, rarely getting mired as Scott's men often did in the soft, unstable snow, but it occasionally jolts an American reader with obscure references and allusions that only the English could understand. Preston has an annoying habit of giving only last names of personalities upon first reference. The pressures Scott faced by competition from Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton are duly noted, but as characters in themselves they are not given enough of a presence. Finally, although the book is illustrated, the reader is left wanting more.

Caroline Alexander's new book, "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," along with reissued editions of Shackleton's "South," tells the story of the Endurance expedition of 1914-1916. Shackleton and his men -- including the indefatigable, multitalented photographer Frank Hurley -- set out on an attempt to cross the Antarctic continent. Unfortunately, in February 1915, sea ice trapped the ship within a day's sail of reaching shore, preventing the crossing party from landing.

The doomed Endurance drifted north with the ice until it was crushed and sank in late November 1915. The 28 men then survived in camps on ice floes as little as 2 feet thick and sensitive to the motion of the sea. When the floes on which they camped disintegrated the following April, the men set out in three lifeboats for a six-day sail to Elephant Island. The glacier-capped island offered a place to camp, but it was far afield of where rescue parties would search.

Shackleton then selected five men - including navigational genius Frank Worsley, who had been captain of the Endurance, and the indestructible Thomas Crean, who had accompanied Scott up until the final, fatal run for the Pole -- for a desperate attempt to sail 800 miles in winter across one of the world's stormiest oceans. The six left Elephant Island in an open, 221/2-foot-long lifeboat, the James Caird, faced up to 80-knot winds and 60-foot waves, and with only four navigational sightings in 16 days, reached their destination, South Georgia.

The Caird was landed on the uninhabited side of South Georgia. Shackleton, Worsley and Crean then spent three days crossing the unmapped mountain spine of the island to reach Stromness, a Norwegian whaling station on the other side. The other three members of the James Caird crew were saved the day after Shackleton, Worsley and Crean reached this outpost of civilization. Eventually Shackleton, on his fourth attempt, returned to Elephant Island with a relief ship and rescued the rest of his men.

Not one man was lost.

Alexander's book accompanies an upcoming exhibit on Shackleton to open in April at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (she is guest curator for the exhibit). Her narrative would benefit from an index and leaves the reader somewhat adrift when she introduces the scientists and crew. However, it picks up steam once the ship is stranded in the ice and, supplemented with "South," well illustrates how the men maintained some semblance of normal life and work in extraordinary circumstances.

Speaking of illustrations, Alexander's book is a must buy for the photographs alone. Hurley was a masterful, if somewhat manipulative, photographer. The reproduction of his work is at its best in the Alexander book. Alexander's own research into the history of the photographs is rewarding, too. Hurley, unburdened by journalistic or scientific standards, all too frequently modified the images to heighten dramatic effect. Most of the changes are innocuous, but Alexander reveals one case in which Hurley's efforts result in a tragic act of vandalism of his own work.

Douglas Mawson, in "The Home of the Blizzard: A True Story of Antarctic Survival," narrates the experiences of his men during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914. Mawson had accompanied Shackleton's expedition of 1907-1909.

While Shackleton led a polar party to within 100 miles of the South Pole, Mawson was among teams who made the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the only active volcano in Antarctica, and the first journey to the South Magnetic Pole.

While Scott and Amundsen raced for the South Pole in 1911-1912, Mawson led an expedition to an unexplored quadrant of Antarctica. In the end his group mapped more than 2,000 miles of coastline and made unparalleled contributions to scientific understanding of that forbidding landscape. A highlight of "Home of the Blizzard" is Mawson's account of a trek across King George Land in which his two companions, B.E.S. Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, died. Mawson's sense of humor, dry as the icy wind from the Pole, makes the book a gem to read.

As those heroic days drew to a close, countries like Great Britain, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and the United States could rightly be proud of the accomplishments of their explorers. But times have sadly changed. Every election year in the United States politicians proclaim the greatness of this country, but fail to inspire the citizenry to do anything to maintain the reputation.

It has been nearly 40 years since President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to reach the moon and provided the money and support to make the dream possible.

Little more than 20 years ago, Congress scuttled the remaining missions to our planetary partner. Since then a few dogged scientists and explorers have had to fight miserly politicians and a yawning public for every cent needed to continue reaching out for the unknown. As the majority slumbers, the nation's claim to greatness fades.

An antidote to the apathy can be found in these stories of life and death on the Earth's most unforgiving continent.

Try turning off the TV and video games and read one, or some, or all of these books. Get inspired to explore this world, other worlds or even your inner world. For it is only by such exploration that one can find what Shackleton called "the naked soul of man."