Men who didn’t die in the cold

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To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson (2009), by Tom Avery.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a soft spot for books in the genre of “men who die in the cold.”  Having said that, I should hasten to explain that it’s not the death part that fascinates me, but rather the hubris of so many explorers and the way that tragic mistakes become the foundation for nationalism.  Hindsight being 20-20, it’s easy enough to question Robert F. Scott’s insistence on using ponies instead of dogs to pull the sleds during his attempt to reach the South Pole in 1912.  But given the tragic result, why is he still  hailed as a hero and studied as an example of great leadership?  Is Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole first, 35 days before Scott’s party, largely ignored because he was Norwegian, or because his party all made it home alive?

To the End of the Earth is an interesting example of the mixed messages of polar exploration.  The book focuses on a 2005 attempt to re-create, as best as possible, Robert Peary’s disputed dog-sledding trip to the North Pole in 1909.  Avery and his teammates hoped to refute nearly a century of doubt by demonstrating that Peary’s claim of having reached the Pole in just 37 days was physically possible.

The actual account of Avery’s expedition is the most interesting part of this book.  It is fascinating to get a glimpse of the practical details of polar travel, from the time-consuming task of putting on boots in the morning to the ice balls that freeze facial hair to clothing.  The expedition diary also captures the mood swings and changes of fortune that mark travel in a constantly changing environment.  The text juxtaposes lyrical descriptions of frost flowers with fears of starvation, flashes of anger at the dogs with vivid accounts of bow waves moving through thin ice in front of the sleds.  It is an engaging portrait of life when extreme conditions become daily reality.

However, the book as a whole is not entirely satisfying.  The contextual material that bookends the expedition provides the history of polar exploration, but also betrays some attitudes about race and gender that I found distressing.  Avery’s implications that “the Inuit” (treated as a monolithic whole) are racially or genetically suited to be either dog-drivers or seamstresses was grating.  Likewise, his ambivalence about having a female teammate shows throughout the book.  Men are clearly the norm in Avery’s world, and a lot of back-handed compliments simply aren’t enough to disguise a distinctly macho outlook on life.

This same aggressive attitude crops up late in the book when Avery provides a blow-by-blow account of disagreements about his accomplishments within the exploring community (by which he largely means the Royal Geographic Society in the UK).  This thoroughly unnecessary section of the book highlights the central paradox of polar exploration– that the personality traits required to survive in such extreme environments are the very ones that generate so much controversy on the return home.

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One Response to Men who didn’t die in the cold

  1. Laura says:

    It’ll be interesting to see how Amundsen and Scott are portrayed next year, when all the 100th anniversary books and articles come out. Pop-historically speaking, Roald got robbed.
    Very interesting point about how polar explorer personality traits aren’t exactly conducive to a happy civilian life.

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