Book recommendation: diaries from three Antarctic expeditions

This year’s winter is not yet a particularly cold one. For sure, never as cold as Antarctica!

December in Antarctica (source: Wikimedia)

I wish to present you a triple review: the narratives of the expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, that all took place during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expeditions.

I started by reading The Worst Journey in the World, the narrative of the Terra Nova expedition, written by the expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard. I have been moved by the way he presents the reader all their difficulties in that most unhospitable land, with the means they had available (the expedition had issues with funding, and landed in Antarctica before an especially harsh winter). Many times I couldn’t hope that they survive – especially in their journey to collect emperor penguin’s eggs, when in the midst of a storm they lose their tent – but in so many occasions they had to resort to emergency solutions, that it is a miracle that the most of them survived. Cherry-Garrard ends his book with a poignant critique to his country and the whole world, which take benefit from the discoveries of few, poorly supported heroes and martyrs.

McMurdo Sound from Arrival Heights in Autumn. The sun is sinking below the Western Mountains.From a water-colour drawing by Dr. Edward A. Wilson. source: Project Gutenberg.

The next read was Amundsen’s The South Pole – An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,” 1910 — 1912. A completely different atmosphere reigns all over the book. Despite the somewhat abrupt decision to sail for the South Pole instead of the North Pole, all is put in place to reach it, camps are efficiently organised and managed, expedition members endure the hardships with high spirits, with bread daily baked by the cook, and even a tiny sauna built during the winter! The trek to the Pole is comparatively uneventful, crowned by success while marked by the death of almost all sleigh-dogs.

Amundsen’s journey (source: Wikipedia)

On the wave of curiosity I read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917. Another epic journey with dramatic episodes and heavy strain on the expedition members, and the almost unbelievable journey of their last small open boats in search for relief.

What I liked of these three books is the way they show me that these great deeds were done by people who were extraordinary for their motivation and endurance, but ordinary in the other aspects of life. Reading how they organised their meals, they fought against cold, they sometimes quarreled and were sad or afraid, makes me reconnect to them in a way that the dry summary of the significant steps of the expeditions would never achieve.

All three books are available on Project Gutenberg, some also as audio books. I hope you will enjoy these reads! Feel free to share your impressions in the comments.


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