"To write about Hell, it helps if you've been there."
- Sir Ranulf Fiennes
Just finished reading a great book about a fascinating man. It's not new or anything; I think it was published back in 2004 (when it comes to reading material I'm more gourmand than gourmet — used bookstores are my favoured haunts). Still, the story's fresh take on a historical figure I'd mistakenly dismissed as a polar Captain Bligh really brought home to me how easy it is for us humans to be bamboozled by clever propaganda.
The book is called Race To The Pole — Tragedy, Heroism and Scott's Antarctic Quest. And it was written by one of the most wildly eccentric characters in the already insane world of modern polar exploration.
A self-avowed outsider in the gentry'd world of his youth, Baronet Sir Ranulph Fiennes became the first human being in history to reach both the Arctic and Antarctic Poles by land. Indeed, he and partner, Mike Stroud, notched another radical first in 1993 when they crossed the entire Antarctic continent on foot (meaning they dragged all their gear in a sled while they walked/skied the devilishly difficult alpine terrain of this nasty polar zone). This, my friends, is one tough dude.
Sorry, getting side-tracked again. Still, it was Fiennes' own brutal polar experiences that made his positive re-evaluation of Captain Robert Scott's troubled legacy such a compelling one for me.
Don't know about you, but I was consumed by polar exploration stories as a kid. Hendrik Hudson's search for the Northwest Passage in the 17th century; Captain Franklin's doomed expedition in the 19th; Peary, Cook, Ross, Nansen, Amundsen, Shackleton — these were my heroes growing up. I never tired of their exploits.
I mean, it's hard to imagine now, but barely a hundred years ago (1911 to be precise), travelling down to Antarctica was akin to rocketing to the moon. Outside rescue was, practically speaking, impossible. Spending a year (or two) scrabbling for existence on the very edge of this continent was then considered the ultimate test of human survival. As for actually making it over the 10,000' mountain barrier that rings Antarctica and charging for the pole, well, that was still a pipe dream.
Alas, there's not enough room in this column to expand on Fiennes' gripping narrative about the surreal race that ensued between Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Brit Captain Robert Scott during the fateful southern summer of 1911-12. This was, after all, the last great global "prize" to be snatched. And the man to claim it first for his country would be assured major status back home... and lots of shekels too.