Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 13, 2010

Adventures really down-under

The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford (1984), Atheneum, 544 + bibliography and index. Incl. photos and maps.

This book was adapted for a television series (on PBS in the 1980s), 7 hours of nearly non-stop grueling life on the ice of Antarctica (available on Netflix, but make sure you get the right one–don’t sign up for the movie by the same name). After seeing the series, I had to read the book. That’s how good it is.

Some things I didn’t know before reading this book: Antarctica has a desert climate. Scurvy causes scar tissue to dissolve, so old wounds re-open. You can survive for several weeks on the ice, eating only biscuits, dried milk, chocolate and pemmican (seems very much like Spam to me, but basically just dried ground meat, mixed with fat), totaling 450 grams and 4560 calories; the ice provides all the water needed.

I also didn’t know what a colossal mistake it was to put Scott in charge of the British group racing Amundsen to the South Pole. For that is what this book is about. It’s fairly clear in the book that Huntford felt obliged to correct the heroic version of Scott’s expedition–dourly battling the elements, showing what men can do with will-power and sledges, dying bravely on the return from the Pole. Huntford portrays him as petulant, unpredictable, inconsistent and tied to the traditional Naval order of power.

It may be that Huntford erred on the side of corrective, and painted Scott as more feckless than he actually was. But even if halved, his level of ineptitude was clear to many people under his command. Yet, they followed him unto death. “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.” Kipling had it right. The saddest moment here is when Oates crawls out of the tent for the last time. You know it’s coming, and still it’s dreadful.

But, despite Scott’s inability to make wise choices, this is a thrilling book. You have to admire the loyalty and efforts of the Brits, as well as the superior preparation and abilities of the Norwegian team.  A race to the Pole, men battling fearsome ice and blinding snowstorms (in a desert? how is that possible? don’t worry, Huntford explains). Amundsen is incredible here–intelligent, devious, inspirational. When I saw his statue in Tromsö, I wanted to bow. What a guy!

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