|"The history of polar exploration is simply the expression of the power that the unknown exerts on the human spirit."
-Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North
Edwardian Antarctic Exploration
One of the biggest questions any polar explorer, and any polargeek for that matter, ever had to answer was "Why?"
Well, why Everest? Why trainspotting? Why anything?
The story of the conquest of the poles is rife with everything one would hope for in a story: tragedy, triumph, romance, intrigue, strong personalities, internecine squabbles, even humor. Nowadays, it is sometimes hard to imagine a time when news wasn't immediate, but in the heyday of polar exploration, both North and South, once an expedition left it was years before anyone would find out if the explorers were even still alive. It fostered the romantic fantasies of the world, and made each captain who left a modern Odysseus. It made each captain who did not return a martyr. Exploratory and rescue expeditions gave countries something to do with their soldiers and sailors, and gained a government global recognition if the explorers came back with scientific or geographical prizes.
But to us, the history is really about the men who actually went on the expeditions. The leaders who made the decisions, and the crew who left everything behind for them for little pay and less glory.
(Although, this too is changing. More and more books are appearing about the crewmembers, whose heroism is every bit as real as that of their commanding officers'. Tom Crean is a fine example.)
Men like Ernest Shackleton, the closest thing you could get to a swashbuckler in Edwardian England; Fridtjof Nansen, Norway's very own, real life MacGyver; Roald Amundsen, Nansen's astute student who won for Norway the South Pole through expert planning and uncommon leadership, and who in all likelihood was in fact the first man to the North Pole as well; and Robert Falcon Scott, a man torn between patriotic duty to a waning English Empire and a fierce desire to prove himself better than others, despite leadership and planning skills that could be considered a bit lacking. Add to that the pressure from a man who was desperate to keep Britain's weakening Naval power in the public eye and it's a wonder Scott's party got as far as it did.