Book recommendation – “South Pole Epic” by Daniel Burton

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am too impatient to review it!

I knew about Daniel‘s expedition from the Wikipedia page about South Pole biking expeditions, when I was looking for references for my previous post about Antarctic expeditions. We (I and my bike-addicted boyfriend) subsequently read a bit of his blog and had to buy his book:

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We started reading it and were initially puzzled by the choice of third-person narrative. I was moreover not that happy with the occasional bumpiness of sentences, and the simple choice of words. But the epic of the adventure captivated us fully,  and made these choices look minor.

The main difference that I noticed from Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen’s narratives is the un-heroism of the protagonist. Of course this is also due to the fact that the three former explorers lead huge teams of people, had any sort of communication difficulties, were on uncharted land most of the time, and missed one hundred years of progress in technology and materials. Daniel’s epic is on another dimension. It is a personal challenge on an Antarctica where he follows ski, truck and snowcat tracks, and is able to use a satellite phone and connect to the Internet every day.

What I like most about this book is the apparent draft-like flow of words. Some could find it “unfinished”, but that’s what makes it more personal, closer to what actually happened. All the moments when Daniel has issues with his bike or with the insidious terrain (crevasses, sastrugi, katabatic wind, soft snow, whiteout…) are told with the knowledge of that very moment, not with the serenity of who knows how the adventure will develop. Many times he loses hope that he will make it, and he tells it quite simply. He mentions a lot of little details that make the reader understand that he is a man like many others, but with a great goal, determination and preparation. It makes me feel like meeting him in person and listening to his recollection of the adventure, with ordinary words, with occasional irregularities in the narrative, with emotion and affection.

I also liked that the first half of the book is about the preparation of this bike trip, from the first ideas that popped up in his mind to the economic difficulties, the support of his family, the endless logistics, the technical details of the bike and clothing. It makes it useful to someone who would like to repeat his feat, there or elsewhere with similar climate.

Definitely a book that I recommend! You can read his blog for excerpts of his adventure.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.