Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Faking it

Fakes and cheats, a recent posting on Mikael Strandberg's blog looks at why some explorers and mountaineers feel the pressure to lie about their exploits. As he points out, there is nothing new about this and inevitably the name of Frederick Cook crops up. In the early 20th century Cook claimed to have been the first to the North Pole and the first to climb on Mount Mckinley (Denali) although it is generally accepted that he didn't succeed at either. As an aside, Strandberg offers a link to someone who suggests that in fact the American might just have been the first up McKinley.

Some of the most famous cases of cheating can be found in Great Exploration Hoaxes by David Roberts. However, while reading the blog I was reminded of Like Water and Like Wind, another piece of work by Roberts. This is a novella about a climber who, after watching his partner fall to his death while descending a mountain face, returns to civilisation and tells the world they were the first up a spectacularly hard route. No one knows that they didn't actually make it to the top and the climber is hailed as a hero in the mountaineering community. Wealth and fame follow. Living a lie though has a corrosive effect on the protagonist and when some begin to question his claims he turns to drink and withdraws from climbing. There's much, much more to this fascinating tale as Roberts explores what motivates an individual to deceive both colleagues and themselves.

A copy of the story can be found in the excellent One Step in the Clouds, an anthology of mountaineering novels and short stories.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Putting online communities on the map

Maps are in the news. The publication of Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey has generated coverage for a subject that rarely gets a look-in on the pages of the print and online media. The book is the first popular history of the Ordnance Survey (OS) map, from its inception in 1791 to the first series of the one-inch map of Great Britain, eight decades later. I've just picked up a copy and hope to write about it at a later date.

If the OS map was the first complete and accurate map of Great Britain, Munroe's Map of Online Communities could well be the first to show the levels of internet social activity around the world. Randall Munroe has created an imagined world in which the land mass of each mythical country named after a website equates to the popularity of that site, showing effectively how social activity is spread throughout the internet.

The map is based on statistical information such as website hits and the number of members each community had during the Summer or 2010. Facebook and Twitter dominate but so does QQ, a Chinese instant messaging service which has more than 100 million users but is almost unheard of in the west. Meanwhile, the once popular MySpace is barely visible. Compare this with the 2007 version when the social networking site occupied a huge chunk of Munroe's map.

I like the way the Twitter landmass includes the impressive looking bit.ly mountain range. There are a number of gags contained - see this larger map.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Survival stories

Last week's rescue of 'los 33' after being trapped in a Chilean mine for over two months provides an excuse for papers to review previous stories of survival. In the Observer, Ed Douglas selects The 10 best Mountain Survival stories. It's a good mix of the well known, such as Touching the Void, Into Thin Air etc, plus a few lesser known tales such as British climber Tony Streather's 1957 expedition to Haramosh.

Not all of the books listed are classics and of course everyone has their own favourites - just take a look at the comments. I might have included Ernest Shackleton's climb over the mountains of South Georgia (as told in Alfred Lansing's Endurance). There was also Doug Scott's epic crawl down the Ogre in 1977 after breaking both legs, and Stephen Venables's high altitude rescue from Panch Chuli V in the Himalaya which he wrote about in A Slender Thread. Making lists, it's an endless task...

Friday, 15 October 2010

Franklin fictions review

The disappearance of Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 man crew somewhere off the eastern coast of Canada in 1845 has spawned at least 24 novels, not to mention poetry, films and drama. Russell Potter, on his Visions of the North blog, reviews some of the literature as well as asking what it is about Franklin that appeals to such a wide array of authors.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

On this day: Douglas Mawson dies, October 14 1958

Douglas Mawson, the Antarctic explorer died 52 years ago at age of 76 in Adelaide. Although born in Yorkshire, he grew up in Sydney. In 1907, the Australian joined Ernest Shackleton's 'Farthest South' Nimrod expedition as a scientist and was part of the team that climbed Mount Erebus as well as reaching the Magnetic South Pole.

It was an expedition that set out in November 1912 to map part of the Antarctic coastline though, for which Mawson will probably be best remembered. After Lieutenant Ninnis, one of the three-man team, disappeared into a massive crevasse, along with six dogs and most of the supplies, the remaining two turned back. All they had to eat was stewed sledge dog but Dr Xavier Mertz then fell ill and died, probably due to poisonous levels of vitamin A from consuming dog liver. Mawson, while also in a dreadful state, eventually managed to make it back to base - only to see the ship that should have carried him to safety already out to sea. He finally managed to leave Antarctica and Those Who Dared includes an interview with the explorer when he visited London in May 1914.

In 1911-14 and 1929-31 Mawson led explorations which enabled Australia to claim much of the continent, something discussed in the following Manchester Guardian leading article from October 15 1958.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

James Caird

For the past couple of years my early Sunday morning ritual has been something like this: wake up, drag daughters off to swimming lessons and then grab 30 minutes or so in the gym while they're perfecting their strokes. The swimming pool is part of Dulwich College, south London, so there is one final part of the ritual - a glance at James Caird, one of the three lifeboats from the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship.

Yes, the final berth for the boat that Shackleton and five companions sailed 800 nautical miles across the South Atlantic to seek rescue for his ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, is small gallery in a boys school. Dulwich College is the explorer's alma mater and after Norwegian whalers had rescued the boat from South Georgia, it made it back to Britain in 1919, was displayed for a while before being delivered to the college in 1922. It was moved during the middle part of the 20th Century but was finally returned to Dulwich in 1986. This led to the formation of the James Caird Society.

The display, consisting of the boat, plus a couple of sledges, a stuffed Emperor penquin and an old sail is well worth a visit, if only to marvel at how this tiny vessel survived such an audacious voyage.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Tryggve Gran interview with Roland Huntford

When Roland Huntford's Scott and Amundsen was first published in 1979, it caused an uproar. For 50 years after his death, Captain Scott's reputation had been that of a great British explorer who died a heroic death in his tent. The book challenged this view, accusing Scott of being, amongst other things, "recklessly incompetent." Huntford though has always maintained that his aim was to rehabilitate Roald Amundsen's reputation, rather than simply attack the Briton.

What led Huntford to write the book in the first place was an interview he did with Tryggve Gran (above), the only Norwegian on Scott's team, for the Observer Colour Magazine in 1974. Huntford was the paper's Scandinavian correspondent, as well as writing about winter sports, for around 15 years. After filing the original piece "the editor phoned me to say he thought there was probably a book in it. I agreed with him and was astonished to find that when the piece was published he had added a footnote saying I was working on a new biography of Scott and Amundsen. So that sort of settled things." (Guardian, December 2008)

The Man Who Remembers Scott's Last Journey is a fascinating read. Gran explains how it was a recommendation from Fridjtof Nansen, the great polar explorer, that led him to being part of a British expedition. In 1910 Scott went to Norway to consult Nansen and while visiting a ski and sled factory, the champion skier remarked "But remember, Scott, it's no use having skis unless you know how to use them properly. You ought to take a Norwegian to show you." Gran also offers some interesting views on the differing personalities of the two protagonists.

As the Observer Colour Magazine has not been digitised, colour versions can only be viewed if you're fortunate to come across a bound volume. See below for the copy that appeared on March 31 1974. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Race for the South Pole

This year marks the centenary of the beginning of the race for the South Pole. On June 1 1910, the Terra Nova, Captain Robert Falcon Scott's ship, sailed out of Cardiff for the Antarctic, while a few weeks later Roald Amundsen's team left the Norwegian port of Flekkero aboard the Fram, also bound for the south.

The British expedition was supposed to be a scientific mission with getting to the pole as just one of its objectives. Things changed though when, on arriving in Melbourne on October 12, Scott received a curt telegram stating: "Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic – Amundsen." The ensuing polar marathon has been written about many times and expect yet more books to appear over the following months.

The latest to join groaning Antarctic Exploration bookshelves is Roland Huntford's The Race for the South Pole which tells the story through the expedition diaries of Scott and Amundsen. The entries are laid out so that the two men “finally confront each other across the printed page.” This is a first as the Norwegian's diaries have never appeared in English before (translated by Huntford), while all the cuts made by Scott's family and literary executors to Scott's published words have been restored. Also appearing for the first time is the diary of Olav Bjaaland, the cross-country champion who played a significant part in Amundsen's successful team.

As a polar historian and ski-expert, Huntford adds valuable commentary to the entries. The introduction sets out clearly the build up to the race, comparing the preparation that each team made during the winter months before setting out for the pole. There may be a little too much detail for some but reading about cooking stoves, skis, or the peculiarities of fur in a polar environment, brings the story alive.

The Race to the Pole is very much a companion volume to Huntford's 1979 book, Scott and Amundsen, an account which still divides polar historians. Was Scott, compared to Amundsen's ultra professional skiing team, an unprepared amateur whose achievement was to “perpetuate the romantic myth of the explorer as martyr" Or was Huntford's revisionist history just a prejudiced rant against a great, and brave, British explorer who simply got unlucky with the weather? This is discussed, along with the the rehabilitation of Scott's reputation by way of books such as Ranulph Fiennes's Captain Scott, in a recent Guardian article.

And so the story continues. The latest news is that descendants of Scott are planning to embark on a journey of commemoration and are offering the chance for one lucky person to go along with them. See here for details (but don't bother applying if you're over 30).