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).

1 comment:

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