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The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration)

The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration) - Roland Huntford A different worldThe world was so different one hundred years ago. In 1911, there were no more major landmasses to discover, and technology wasn't quite advanced enough yet to dream about going to the bottom of the ocean, or landing on the moon, but the honor of being first to reach the South Pole was still open for the taking. Nobody had ever set foot on the South Pole before, and two very different men set out to claim the prize. This book compares their experiences.The FavoriteWhen the British navy resolved to claim the South Pole, officer Robert F. Scott volunteered for the mission. His career to that point had been unimpressive. By merit alone, it did not look like he would ever advance to the Admiralty. As a status-conscious aristocrat, this weighed heavily in his mind. He hoped that a quick jaunt down to the South Pole to plant the Union Jack would make him a worldwide celebrity, and they would just have to make him a Sea Lord after that! Unfortunately (for all involved) Scott failed to adequately plan for the journey. Despite having been to the Antarctic before, he demonstrated either careless disregard or shameful ignorance of the challenges his men would face, arrogantly filling a ship with haphazardly-chosen provisions, most notably ponies he intended to use to haul provisions overland in Antarctica. The ponies fared poorly in -40F weather, and struggled with their footing in deep snow, so Scott's expedition had to abandon them, and ended up trekking on foot, pulling hundreds of pounds of provisions behind them on sleds. The food Scott packed did not fully meet the nutritional requirements of their backbreaking labor in such a harsh environment. Consequently, Scott's party was not first to the Pole. They did reach the Pole eventually, but did not survive the trip back to their ship. They died, frozen and starved in a tent, just a few miles from their next food depot. The Dark HorseIn extraordinary contrast, Raoul Amundsen grew up in Norway, where as an adolescent he would go out alone into the wilderness hunting, skiing, and fishing for days at a time. His formative years were spent learning the skills of cold weather survival, and he had a love of the outdoors which Scott did not seem to share. When he became determined to make a run for the Pole, he undertook the project with an enormous humility towards nature, augmenting the cold weather skills he aquired in childhood by spending several months amongst Eskimos, studying their traditional foods and clothing, hoping to gleen any insights he could. His open-minded approach served him well: Eskimo winter gear (animal skins lined with fur, sewn tight, and waterproofed with repeated applications of fat), was far superior to what the industrialized world was producing at the time. Centuries of experience had taught the Eskimos that keeping dry was the greater part in the battle to keep warm. Amundsen's study of the Eskimo diet was also beneficial. The fat and protein-rich diet, with generous portions of oil-rich fish, supported the increased caloric requirements of the polar climate. Most importantly: Amundsen came to appreciate the special role of dogs in the far North. He carefully studied the care and training of huskies to pull pack sleighs over great distances. Successful application of this knowlegde allowed the Amundsen expedition to comfortably cover over twenty miles per day in the severe cold, while Scott et al trudged along at less than half that pace. As an added efficiency, Amundsen learned to employ his dogs for dual purposes: the weight his expedition needed to carry was dramatically reduced when he devised a schedule whereby one dog per night would be sacrificed to feed the other dogs. Antarctica is a land of extremes, and not for the faint of heart.The court of public opinionScott announced to the world that he intended to be the first man to set foot on the Pole, sparking global interest. His ship set sail with the well-wishes of the world. In contrast, Amundsen was not primarily seeking publicity when he left on his mission, although he did hope to glorify his homeland. Publicity surrounding his departure was comparatively muted. While underway, Scott got news of Amundsen's intent, and took offense. He sent the Norwegian a message, asking him to withdraw. When Amundsen declined, and eventually aquired the Pole, much of the world felt Scott had somehow been wronged. This may be the oddest eccentricity in the history of exploration: a large fraction of the population now villifies the man whose determination, skill and meticulous planning not only won him first place at the Pole, but also delivered his entire entourage home safely. That's disgraceful. Announcing your intent to set first foot on the South Pole isn't the same a a kid "calling shotgun" to ride in the front seat. Scott didn't have "dibs" on the Pole. Nobody had been to the South Pole before, and Scott told the world he was going to be the first. Amundsen made no announcements, but HE DID IT. HE DID IT! So what's so unfair? Actions are stronger than words. Shame on Scott for being such a blowhard and embarrassing himself with all that fanfare before he had achieved anything. Somehow that's not how many people see it. In a perversion of perspective I will never understand, Scott is romanticized as a hero tragically denied his rightful claim. Never mind that he catastrophically bungled every aspect of the expedition, from the planning stage before he even left home, to his icy death in a frozen wasteland. His arrogantly lacadasical assessment of the expedition's challenges cost him his life, the lives of his men, and Britain's claim on the Pole. Yet this ignominious demise has somehow been spun into a "victory of the spirit". Some victory... a social-climbing aristocrat's stunt to get promoted kills six people, and suddenly he's a role model?The victory bell tolls for theeHow did Amundsen lose this PR fight? I think the answer lies in the historical circumstances. An English naval officer, in an age when the British Empire was at its peak, gets publically humiliated by a little-known Norwegian, just three years after that nation was granted independence from Sweden. I don't think the Anglo-American establishment was mentally equipped to handle that. They couldn't accept that they had been so roundly beaten by a weaker nation, so they found refuge in a concocted tale of deceits. It is a sad instance when our tribal instincts sullied a milestone event which by all rights should have been univerally celebrated as a human accomplishment. Cold War politics would have a similar, albeit less pronounced, effect on the moon landing fifty-eight years later.