Near Death
In the Arctic

True Stories of
Disaster and Survival

Cecil Kuhne, Editor
(Vintage Books)
It's great summer reading, these twelve tales, most from the salad years of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, from the 1890s to the 1930s. There are the famous (Richard Byrd, Robert Peary, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen) and the not-so-famous (Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Fridtjof Nansen, Valerian Albanov, Frank Arthur Worsley).

Before the coming of satellites, sturdy airplanes, and heavy-duty transport, Arctic and Antarctic exploration was life-threatening. What was it with these guys? For, as Cherry-Garrard wrote in 1924:

    Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.

These were trips that took you to the edge, the real edge. You and your companions (if you had any left) came to be enmeshed in a cold and deadly world, with fog, icy seas, frost-bite, isolation, starvation, depression as the givens.

On the book Resolute, one of our critics said

    Arctic explorers were, if you ask me, dotty. With great sums of money, endless manpower, great (and expensive) vessels, they sailed into the unknown ... and got their limbs nipped off by frost, came down with scurvy, spent months entombed in the dark, in the ice, fought with (and at times murdered) each other, and, not so rarely, died ... presumably, of cold, if not of sheer animal boredom.

"How would you like to spend ten months in a mouldy boat (or tent)," he concluded: "in the near-dark, staring at the same glacier, day after day?"

A man like Robert Scott inspired passionate world-wide affection, but he made serious mistakes from the very beginning of his final and fatal exploration. You come into the South Pole region fully equipped; you do not bring horses; you don't collect rocks when you are trying desperately to survive.

Scott blamed his death on the weakness of his companions, and the weather, ignoring the fact that at the same exact time the Norwegian Roald Amudsen succeeded in reaching and returning from the South Pole with no loss of life whatsoever. At no point did Scott take the blame on himself.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard's story of Scott's expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, has been rightly deemed one of the great travel books of all time. His description of "polar exploration" tells us that "It is the only form of adventure in which you put on your clothes at Michaelmas and keep them on until Christmas, and, save for a layer of the natural grease of the body, find them as clean as though they were new. It is more lonely than London, more secluded than any monastery, and the post comes but once a year ... Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin."

Part of The Worst Journey is excerpted in Near Death, but it is not necessarily the best part: too much is devoted to faithfully defending that nincompoop Scott. Cherry did survive, and one of the best parts of his tale occurs at the end. This good-tempered man, who had suffered through three trying years at the South Pole, is attempting to gift the penguin eggs that he collected (and that damn near killed him) to a functionary at the London Museum of Natural History. The curator is disinterested; Cherry is beside himself; the reader is enchanted.

§     §     §

Besides Cherry, the great writers in Near Death are David Lewis on his solo sail around the southern continent, Ernest Shackleton with his fascinating detail of lights, shadows, and mirages, and Richard E. Byrd. His Alone is one of the great classic travel books of all time, right up there with the Odyssey, Sailing Alone Around the World, and The Caves and Jungles of Hindostan.

Byrd's book is a masterpiece but a puzzler (what the hell was he doing out in the wilds of Antarctica, all by himself, with no help, forty-six years old?), a detective story (what in his cabin is slowly killing him?), a psychological thriller (is he crazy?), and, above all, an excellent exercise in adventure writing.

What the hell was he doing out there in the bitter cold icy no-man's-land, in 1934, on his own? Well, he was probably doing the same that Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and Peary were doing: pushing the limits. Why? For the same reason that you and I, sometime in our lives, will venture into some forbidden region (of the soul, of humanity): just to see if we can do it, just to see if we can make it.

Some of the worst writing here is by Robert Falcon Scott. As one of our early reviewers wrote in RALPH about the last trip:

    One gets the feeling that the whole kit-and-kaboodle was undertaken with a minimum of good sense and a maximum of what could charitably be called hubris. The choice of the Terra Nova --- an ancient and leaky vessel --- to take the party south from New Zealand was the first mistake. Everything flowed from that: the disasters that occurred in the earliest part of the journey --- including a lack of fresh water, lack of huskies, lack of appropriate space for the ponies --- all helped to foment the disasters that followed.

§     §     §

A new voice, one perhaps a little less demented --- but not by much --- is David Lewis. For some bizarre reason, he chose to set forth in 1972 to sail around the entire Antarctic, in a "small, steel-hulled yacht dubbed the Ice Bird." His tale of lousy weather, huge waves, a few excruciating misjudgments, and misfortune in general can be as gripping as the stories of Byrd, Shackleton, and Worsley. Lewis ended up battered, frost-bitten, tossed about by huge waves, adrift for thirteen weeks ... long after all had given up on him. "Earning membership of humanity --- must earn it every day, to be a man," he explains. Well ... maybe.

There is little to be lost by reading all of Near Death in the Arctic. At times these fools inspire the reader to ... dare I say it? ... want to make his or her own foolish journey, out there in the wild. At worst, we get to improve our vocabulary, for the two poles give us their own words: "Nunatak" (the eskimo devil), "brash" (aggregated blocks of ice), "leads" (channels of open water cut through the ice), "rubble ice" (just like it sounds), and my favorite, no definition given by Scott: "toothed sastrugi."

--- A. J. Woodbridge
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