Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford

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Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The story of the joint race by Captain Scott and Roald Amundsen to reach the South Pole first, told largely through entries from their diaries and from that of Amundsen's companion Olav Bjaaland.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 364 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 978-1441169822

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In 1910 two European ships set out for the Antarctic. 'Terra Nova' was carrying British explorers under the leadership of Captain Robert Scott, while 'Fram' sailed with a rival Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen. The basic facts can be briefly summarized. Amundsen arrived at the South Pole on 14 December 1911 and returned home to a hero's welcome, while Scott reached the same destination 35 days later, only to perish with his men on the return journey. Their bodies were found by a search party some eight months after they had died.

Despite a regular flow since that time of books, some of which included extracts from their diaries, this volume represents something of a first. Scott's journals appeared in print with some minor cuts, which are here restored, while Amundsen's writings on the subject, and those of his companion and fellow chronicler Olav Bjaaland, appear between these covers for the first time in English. This parallel version of two expeditions makes for a compellingly readable 300 pages or so, bookended with an introduction on the background and build-up to both ventures and an epilogue to tie up the loose ends afterwards. The hazards of travel at one of the world's extremes, sore feet and strained tendons, the pros and cons of equipment and animals, and the variations in weather are all brought home very atmospherically in the leaders' words. Although we might have a mental picture of conditions in the Antarctic being one of unrelieved gloom with no escape from sub-zero temperatures and perpetual blizzards, every now and then we read of references which dispel or at least temper that impression. The most wonderful weather here at the Pole, so we could see for miles around (Bjaaland, 18 Dec 1911), for example, and the skiing was brilliant, the weather splendid… we have been uncomfortably warm (Amundsen, 19 Dec 1911).

As we know, for one party the result was joy and success, with the winners taking all. For the other it ended in defeat, disappointment and death. It gradually dawned on Scott that he had lost the race almost before he began, and we can sense the foreboding in some of his earlier entries, such as a reference to bad weather sapping the strength of their ponies; it requires much philosophy to be cheerful on such occasions. (7 Nov 1911). Later, after having reached the Pole under very different circumstances from those expected, having been beaten into second place, he notes Great – God this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority… Now for the run home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it. (17 Jan 1912)

Anybody interested in exploration, and one of the world's most enduring true stories of the subject, will welcome this book. What they may not welcome is Huntford's evident bias against one of his subjects.

Amundsen was very efficient, well-organised and thoroughly prepared for the hostile conditions he knew he and his men would encounter. Scott is portrayed as something of an Edwardian dandy, the representative of a complacent British Empire on its last legs, a naval officer with strict and outmoded ideas of discipline, a bad organiser who set out with inadequate supplies and equipment, a sentimentalist and poor judge of men when it came to selecting his companions, all of whom were in the author's words monumentally unsuited to the task in which they were engaged. Even the failure of their motor sledges, which were unsuitable because of poor design and shoddy workmanship, was almost an allegory of the collapse of British industrial power. It is hard not to agree that Scott made mistakes for which he, Wilson, Bowers and Oates all paid dearly. To give but one instance, they only took with them one hypsometer thermometer, an instrument which was notoriously prone to breakage in extreme temperatures. Amundsen and his men had had the forethought to pack no less than four. Nevertheless the continual praising of the Norwegian victor and denigration of his opposite number, whose poor planning proved that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, might make for an entertaining read for those of us used to a diet of tabloid newspaper journalism ('OK, who can we dish the dirt on this time?'). But it does not make for an even-handed writing of history. One can almost feel the disgust when Huntford writes that, once Scott's fate was known and revealed to the British public, his countrymen wallowed in an orgy of self-indulgent lamentation reminiscent of the British public's response, more recently, to the death of Princess Diana.

For years, Scott and his companions were feted as tragic heroes, the victims of monumental bad luck. In recent years, more penetrating research has proved that this is a grossly over-simplified verdict, and that he did make major errors. (With hindsight, it is always easier to be wise after the event). But the progressive picture throughout these pages of the Englishman as a bungler of the highest order becomes mildly tiresome towards the end. It does have the effect of detracting to some degree from what is otherwise an extremely good and thoroughly readable work on the subject.

Our thanks to Continuum for providing Bookbag with a review copy.

If you enjoy this, why not also try another title on life and exploration in the frozen wastes at the opposite end of the world, The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic by Sara Wheeler.

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Buy Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford at Amazon.com.


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