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Check It Out: Exploring Antarctica from the comfort of home

August 25, 2011|By Steven Short

Nearly 100 years ago, Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. His team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at their destination in December 1911. Leaving behind a small tent and a letter stating their accomplishment, they returned safely to their base camp the following month.

Meanwhile, a British expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, set forth from their Antarctic base camp with the same goal of reaching the pole first. Upon arrival, they were disheartened to learn that Amundsen had beaten them by five weeks. Their return trip was hampered by deteriorating weather, dwindling supplies, and injuries. All five members of this team would eventually perish before reaching base camp.

Differing opinions of the two explorers have emerged over time. Amundsen is credited for his careful preparation, choice of appropriate equipment and clothing, and sole focus on reaching the pole and returning quickly. Scott is often portrayed as heroic but inept. He is faulted for bringing ponies instead of sled dogs, wearing heavy woolens instead of furs, and disdaining the use of skis.

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Both men kept detailed diaries.

In "Race to the Pole," author Roland Huntford presents these diaries unedited, with daily entries from both arranged next to each other. The reader gets a sense of the different strategies and mindsets of the two men. While Amundsen is exultant after reaching the pole, Scott's entries reflect a mood of increasing desperation. For a more traditional narrative, see "The Last Place on Earth," an earlier work by Huntford.

Edward Larson, in "An Empire of Ice," departs from this conventional account. While allowing Amundsen his place in history, Larson places British explorations in the larger perspective of their primary purpose as scientific enterprises.

Scott was required by his financial backers to conduct surveying and gather other scientific data. Amundsen was unhindered by such burdens. Larson's sympathetic treatment increases our appreciation for the accomplishments of Scott and others of this era.

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