Early exploration of the polar regions seems to go hand in hand with heroism and drama. The tragic story of the race to the South Pole is one of the most resonate examples of that. In 1911, two teams set out for Antarctica to be the first ever to reach the southernmost point of the globe. There are several books depicting the endeavors of men led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, but one of our favorites is The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition by Susan Solomon.
There are two points on our globe different from all the rest and therefore considered the ultimate polar achievement – the North Pole and the South Pole. The end of 19th and beginning of 20th centuries marked the era of heroic discoveries, and both prizes were taken – but at different costs.
In 1909, two controversial claims were made by Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook about reaching the northernmost spot. Already a renowned explorer at that time, Norwegian Roald Amundsen had been planning the same journey. But after he learned the North Pole has already been conquered, he decided to go for Antarctica instead – “to solve the last great problem”, as he put it.
At the same time, in Britain, a Royal Navy officer and explorer Robert Falcon Scott wished to follow in the footsteps of Shackleton, who has recently returned from the Antarctic having narrowly failed to reach the Pole. Scott wanted to secure the British Empire the honor of the southernmost achievement.
Scott recruited men from his initial Antarctic voyage in 1902 and Ernest Shackleton’s ship Nimrod, and set sail on Terra Nova. Amundsen kept his plans secret until the last minute, not even telling the crew where they were headed at first, and used Fridtjof Nansen’s ship Fram.
After overwintering in Antarctica, on October 18th, 1911, Amundsen’s team set out on its drive towards the Pole. Scott’s men began their trek three weeks later. At around 3 pm on December 14th, 1911, Amundsen raised the flag of Norway at the South Pole. Captain Scott arrived 33 days later, only to find out that he was too late. Extreme cold, hunger and exhaustion led to their tragic fate. Amundsen’s crew all returned home safely.
Susan Solomon brings a scientific perspective to the understanding of Scott’s struggle and misfortune, drawing on extensive meteorological data and her knowledge of Antarctica. She not only depicts the story with sights, sounds and authentic diary entries but puts the focus on extreme weather conditions – which may have played the biggest factor in the party’s fate.
I was captivated by how personal the story felt. It appealed to the explorer inside, sparked compassion with each character and gave me chills with each new plot twist. This beautifully written book makes your mind travel and fills your soul.
Have you got a Polar book tip as well? We would be delighted to get your recommendation.