Review: Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism and Scott’s Antarctic Quest

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (2004)

In 1911, on his second expedition in the Polar South, Captain Robert Scott led a team of men on a grueling 1600-mile trek across Antarctica, over glaciers, ice and snow, around dangerously deep caverns, and in the bitterest of cold, in a bid to be the first to reach the South Pole. At the same time, and initially unknown to Scott, a Norwegian team was positioning itself on the ice to trump the British and reach the Pole first.

With the advantage of a superior starting point, more favorable weather and the use of dog teams, the Norwegians made it to the goal first. Scott and his four companions travelled by foot the entire way, pulling sledges loaded down with supplies. They reached the Pole weeks after it had been conquered and on their return trip, injuries and a tragic change in weather stopped them in their tracks, where they slowly died, one by one.

Before reading this book, I wasn’t very familiar with Scott or his polar explorations. I’ve read a number of books about Shackleton (who joins Scott on his first exploration of Antarctica) but I knew nothing about Scott’s race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen to be the first man to reach the South Pole. Nor was I aware of the debate that still rages on about the turn of events, the merits of the expedition,  blame for the deaths and the importance of it all.

If the trick to ensuring a good book is for the author to write what they know, then Sir Ranulph Fiennes resume ensures that he’s the right man to tell this tale. A celebrated explorer (his bio on the dust jacket notes that he’s the first man to reach both Poles on land), Fiennes infuses his telling of the Scott expedition with descriptions and observations from personal experience that illuminate the place, the people and the extreme situations they encounter. Building on the obvious research that went into the book, Fiennes’ insights give a richer context to the tale and helps the reader understand the what and why at junctures in the story that are debatable or have become clouded from the truth in their retelling.

Fiennes dedicates Race to the Pole “To the families of the defamed dead” and it’s his upfront intention to restore to Captain Robert Scott and his men the place of honor and respect they are due.  In the decades since Scott perished on the return trip from conquering the South Pole, the legend was born and then trashed, as his story fell out of favor and was then twisted from the truth as it fell in favor to bash such heroes and dredge up rumor and speculation. He’s honest in his intent and very convincing.

I was completely enthralled by this book from beginning to end. Fiennes passion for his subject comes shining through. His writing style is direct and engaging without having to resort to cliche and “portents of doom” writing tricks that often cheese-up tragic true story adventures such as this. Highly recommended. [*****]

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3 Responses

  1. Karen

    This is an interesting site for those interested in modern polar exploration–these two are trying to become the first women to ski across the top of the world, and they’re posting their progress on this site. It’s a long way from Scott and the others, technologically and in distance, but skiing across the North Pole still sounds really grueling, doesn’t it?

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