Joanna Kavenna

Heroes of the Ice Age

Four new books on the great era of polar exploration

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.

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