In the early 20th century, explorers were goaded and galvanised by the blanks on the maps — the North and South Poles, and the mist-draped floes and glaciers around them. Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen set off with one prevailing purpose: to reach the extremities of the earth. Hardy, maniacal, even at times suicidal, they scattered ‘firsts’ and ‘furthests’ across the ice: the furthest south of Scott’s expedition of 1901-04, Shackleton’s furthest south of 1909, Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole in 1911.
Robert Peary’s claim that he reached the North Pole in 1909 was later disputed, so it may well have been Amundsen who first saw both the South and North Poles — the latter from the air, in 1926. After this, it is said, the ‘heroic age’ of polar exploration was over. What remained for later explorers was less glorious: relic quests, emulation. Equally, the stories of these firsts and furthests have been told and retold and now, instead of swashbuckling exclusives, polar historians are now more usually left with reinterpretation. Or, for the most daring, iconoclasm.
Recently, the retracings and reassessments have been coming thick and fast, in homage to a couple of significant centenaries. The centenary of Shackleton’s furthest south (1909) informs Henry Worsley’s In Shackleton’s Footsteps and, to a degree, Angie Butler’s The Quest for Frank Wild, which tells the story of Shackleton’s ‘second self’, and the only explorer of the ‘heroic age’ to serve on five expeditions to the Antarctic. The centenary of Scott and Amundsen’s race (1911-12) lurks behind the paperback publication of Roland Huntford’s collected diaries of Scott, Amundsen and Olav Bjaaland (a Norwegian ski champion who was among those who went with Amundsen to the South Pole) and Edward J. Larson’s scholarly discussion of the ‘heroic age of Antarctic science’, An Empire of Ice.
Though the polar paths are well trodden, these authors have managed to garner the odd first along the way. As Huntford explains, Amundsen and Bjaaland’s diaries were not available in full in English before his book appeared, and the three diaries have never before been juxtaposed day by day. Frank Wild’s memoirs were left unseen and untouched for years after his death in South Africa in 1939, until Butler hunted them out.
Henry Worsley’s journey is a first among re-enactments: the first time a group of descendants of polar explorers has tried to recreate Shackleton’s 1908-09 southwards trek. Worsley, a distant relative of Frank Worsley, captain of Shackleton’s ship Endurance, joined forces with two descendants of, respectively, Shackleton and Jameson Boyd Adams, another member of the 1909 team. Shackleton is ‘more than a hero to me’, explains Worsley, who has spent years collecting ‘Shackletonia’ — first-edition books, photographs, cigarette cards. A soldier in the British army, he has often asked himself in times of danger, ‘How would Shacks get out of this, then?’ He carries Shackleton’s compass all the way to Shackleton’s furthest south and then onwards even unto the South Pole. Yet, though his account is laced with autobiography and ancestral bonding, Worsley also acknowledges the gelid indifference of the Antarctic wilderness: ‘Our presence on a landscape of such immensity seemed an out and out irrelevance…’
Angie Butler also emphasises her deep affection for the subject of her seven-year quest, mostly through South Africa, where Frank Wild spent his post-polar years. Wild has been seen as something of an English equivalent of the Norwegian explorer Hjalmar Johansen, who accompanied Fridtjof Nansen on his furthest north expedition of 1893-96, yet declined later into alcoholism and ignominy, railing against almost everyone. Butler argues that Wild did not die drunken, embittered and alone: ‘His funeral was anything other than the desultory affair it has been remembered as.’ ‘I found no evidence in South Africa that he was an alcoholic.’ Wild’s long-lost memoirs are fascinating and understated. Often the worst asperities are relayed as dark comedy. On the 1908-09 expedition: ‘Shackleton was snow-blind and as we came to crevasses, I had to tell him where to jump to clear them.’ Or, on the trials of a Professor David, who was heard calling, politely, ‘Are you very busy Mawson?’ ‘Yes,’ said Mawson. ‘If you are not too busy, Mawson, I wish you would come out and give me a hand, the fact of the matter is I am down a crevasse and I can’t hold on much longer.’
In An Empire of Ice, Edward J. Larson emphasises the novelty of his reinterpretation. Polar historians, he proposes, have underestimated the scientific importance of Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions. Larson believes that ‘due recognition’ should be given to the scientific discoveries made by Scott and his men, in such fields as ‘terrestrial magnetism, geographical discovery, oceanography, and meteorology to biology, geology, and glaciology’. The rock samples that Scott, Wilson and Bowers were still carrying when they died, dismissed as ‘junk’ by posterity, were not ‘junk’ at all, Larson adds. Rather, they contained impressions of the ‘long-sought Glossopteris plant, whose presence in Antarctica supported the hypothesis that the southern continents once formed an immense supercontinent’. ‘The focus on heroic but hapless man-hauling turned Scott into a Victorian stereotype,’ Larson concludes, yet ‘when science is restored to the equation, all three British Antarctic expeditions of the pre-war period become modern and forward-looking enterprises.’
Roland Huntford, in Race for the South Pole (and elsewhere), disagrees vehemently and, always, with polemical brilliance. In The Last Place on Earth, Huntford demolished the myth of Captain Scott, recasting him as an incompetent amateur who squandered his own life and those of his men. In his excellent biography of Fridtjof Nansen, Huntford crafted a complex portrait of a strange, melancholy, charismatic man. Race for the South Pole, while allowing the reader to savour the contrasts between the expedition diaries of Scott, Amundsen and Bjaaland, also shows Huntford in continued argument with his sources. He re-approaches Scott as a man he knows well, but has never liked. When Scott, catastrophically delayed on his return journey, writes, ‘One cannot consider this a fault of our own… it was more than three parts surface which held us back,’ Huntford adds a terse note: ‘There was a cure for the bad going described by Scott, but unknown to him.’ It was an old technique of spitting water onto the sledge runners, which Amundsen had learned from the Netsilik Eskimos of Arctic Canada. For Huntford, it is one more lasting irony of the polar age that Amundsen, denounced as a ‘mere pole seeker’ against Scott’s ‘great scientific enterprise’, had, at every stage, done his research more thoroughly than Scott.
All these books grapple with the baroque politics of acclamation and reputation. Larson is busy trying to reclaim Scott, even as Huntford knocks him down again. A couple of decades ago, Shackleton had been largely forgotten. Now Butler feels his second-in-command should also be saved from obscurity. Meanwhile, the Antarctic is scattered with contemporary travellers, heads bowed in deference to the dead.
This year will see another backwards-looking first — the first ‘precise re-enactment’ of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole, with Henry Worsley leading the Amundsen team. The 2011 Scott will, presumably, be hoping that his re-enactment is not too
precise. During a 2006-07 re-enactment, across Greenland, the British fell once more into disarray. The Norwegians won by miles. Huntford writes, ‘They proved… that history does indeed repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’