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The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration) (edition 1999)

by Roland Huntford, Paul Theroux (Introduction)

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4161325,944 (4.43)7
Member:phoenixlee
Title:The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration)
Authors:Roland Huntford
Other authors:Paul Theroux (Introduction)
Info:Modern Library (1999), Paperback, 640 pages
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Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
A revisionist view supporting Amundsen more than Scott ( )
  michaelwarr | Apr 3, 2014 |
I've always been struck by the fact that the British revere Scott, a miserable failure, in my estimation. He was smug, didn't do his homework, and wasted resources on a doomed effort. Amundsen, on the other hand, studied the Eskimos to learn how to survive in harsh arctic conditions, learned how to use dogs, including eating them as they went along, and he breezed to the South Pole and back almost as easily as a walk in the park. Scott insisted on taking mules, which required that he haul hay along. Just ridiculous. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
A different world
The world was so different one hundred years ago. In 1911, there were no more major landmasses to discover, and technology wasn't quite advanced enough yet to dream about going to the bottom of the ocean, or landing on the moon, but the honor of being first to reach the South Pole was still open for the taking. Nobody had ever set foot on the South Pole before, and two very different men set out to claim the prize. This book compares their experiences.


The Favorite
When the British navy resolved to claim the South Pole, officer Robert F. Scott volunteered for the mission. His career to that point had been unimpressive. By merit alone, it did not look like he would ever advance to the Admiralty. As a status-conscious aristocrat, this weighed heavily in his mind. He hoped that a quick jaunt down to the South Pole to plant the Union Jack would make him a worldwide celebrity, and they would just have to make him a Sea Lord after that!

Unfortunately (for all involved) Scott failed to adequately plan for the journey. Despite having been to the Antarctic before, he demonstrated either careless disregard or shameful ignorance of the challenges his men would face, arrogantly filling a ship with haphazardly-chosen provisions, most notably ponies he intended to use to haul provisions overland in Antarctica. The ponies fared poorly in -40F weather, and struggled with their footing in deep snow, so Scott's expedition had to abandon them, and ended up trekking on foot, pulling hundreds of pounds of provisions behind them on sleds. The food Scott packed did not fully meet the nutritional requirements of their backbreaking labor in such a harsh environment. Consequently, Scott's party was not first to the Pole. They did reach the Pole eventually, but did not survive the trip back to their ship. They died, frozen and starved in a tent, just a few miles from their next food depot.


The Dark Horse
In extraordinary contrast, Raoul Amundsen grew up in Norway, where as an adolescent he would go out alone into the wilderness hunting, skiing, and fishing for days at a time. His formative years were spent learning the skills of cold weather survival, and he had a love of the outdoors which Scott did not seem to share. When he became determined to make a run for the Pole, he undertook the project with an enormous humility towards nature, augmenting the cold weather skills he aquired in childhood by spending several months amongst Eskimos, studying their traditional foods and clothing, hoping to gleen any insights he could. His open-minded approach served him well: Eskimo winter gear (animal skins lined with fur, sewn tight, and waterproofed with repeated applications of fat), was far superior to what the industrialized world was producing at the time. Centuries of experience had taught the Eskimos that keeping dry was the greater part in the battle to keep warm. Amundsen's study of the Eskimo diet was also beneficial. The fat and protein-rich diet, with generous portions of oil-rich fish, supported the increased caloric requirements of the polar climate. Most importantly: Amundsen came to appreciate the special role of dogs in the far North. He carefully studied the care and training of huskies to pull pack sleighs over great distances. Successful application of this knowlegde allowed the Amundsen expedition to comfortably cover over twenty miles per day in the severe cold, while Scott et al trudged along at less than half that pace. As an added efficiency, Amundsen learned to employ his dogs for dual purposes: the weight his expedition needed to carry was dramatically reduced when he devised a schedule whereby one dog per night would be sacrificed to feed the other dogs. Antarctica is a land of extremes, and not for the faint of heart.


The court of public opinion
Scott announced to the world that he intended to be the first man to set foot on the Pole, sparking global interest. His ship set sail with the well-wishes of the world. In contrast, Amundsen was not primarily seeking publicity when he left on his mission, although he did hope to glorify his homeland. Publicity surrounding his departure was comparatively muted. While underway, Scott got news of Amundsen's intent, and took offense. He sent the Norwegian a message, asking him to withdraw. When Amundsen declined, and eventually aquired the Pole, much of the world felt Scott had somehow been wronged. This may be the oddest eccentricity in the history of exploration: a large fraction of the population now villifies the man whose determination, skill and meticulous planning not only won him first place at the Pole, but also delivered his entire entourage home safely. That's disgraceful. Announcing your intent to set first foot on the South Pole isn't the same a a kid "calling shotgun" to ride in the front seat. Scott didn't have "dibs" on the Pole. Nobody had been to the South Pole before, and Scott told the world he was going to be the first. Amundsen made no announcements, but HE DID IT. HE DID IT! So what's so unfair? Actions are stronger than words. Shame on Scott for being such a blowhard and embarrassing himself with all that fanfare before he had achieved anything.

Somehow that's not how many people see it. In a perversion of perspective I will never understand, Scott is romanticized as a hero tragically denied his rightful claim. Never mind that he catastrophically bungled every aspect of the expedition, from the planning stage before he even left home, to his icy death in a frozen wasteland. His arrogantly lacadasical assessment of the expedition's challenges cost him his life, the lives of his men, and Britain's claim on the Pole. Yet this ignominious demise has somehow been spun into a "victory of the spirit". Some victory... a social-climbing aristocrat's stunt to get promoted kills six people, and suddenly he's a role model?


The victory bell tolls for thee
How did Amundsen lose this PR fight? I think the answer lies in the historical circumstances. An English naval officer, in an age when the British Empire was at its peak, gets publically humiliated by a little-known Norwegian, just three years after that nation was granted independence from Sweden. I don't think the Anglo-American establishment was mentally equipped to handle that. They couldn't accept that they had been so roundly beaten by a weaker nation, so they found refuge in a concocted tale of deceits. It is a sad instance when our tribal instincts sullied a milestone event which by all rights should have been univerally celebrated as a human accomplishment. Cold War politics would have a similar, albeit less pronounced, effect on the moon landing fifty-eight years later. ( )
1 vote BirdBrian | Apr 4, 2013 |
This book is many things: the story of the race to the South Pole, a dual biography of the rivals, Englishman Captain Robert F. Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen, adventure and exploration of the Antarctic, and above all a tale of leadership--superb and inept.

The book, which the New York Times book review called "one of the great debunking biographies" was greeted with outrage in Britain, where Scott had achieved mythic status. Scott, who Huntford called "muddle-headed" and a "bungler" embodied the spirit of "self-sacrifice." A naval officer who was the epitome of "regimented mediocrity" Scott only became a polar explorer to jump start his stalled career. Huntsman couldn't paint a more stark contrast than that between Scott and Amundsen. Amundsen didn't drift into polar exploration, it was his dream since a teen. Where Scott improvised, Amundsen carefully prepared; he sought men who would take initiative, rather than passively receive orders. Rather than embrace self-sacrifice and suffering as an ideal, Amundsen attacked the problem of polar exploration rationally and efficiently. For him, "adventure is just bad planning." He used skis and dogs; Scott used "man-hauling." It was almost comical at times to read of Scott's mistakes and utter incompetence after having read about how Amundsen led his expedition. Or it might have been, if it wasn't so tragic, such a sheer waste in every sense of the word.

Certainly the contrast between the men and their fates made for gripping reading. This is an intimidatingly long book of over 500 pages--but it read quickly. I have little to complain of Huntford. A touch of misogyny perhaps--which he ironically accused Amundsen of--yet it was the author who made disparaging remarks about women in general, including calling them "predatory." (Scott's wife he described as particularly so, both Scott and Amundsen's mother are portrayed in unflattering lights.) The dogs are depicted as much more endearing. There's a generous use of maps and pictures and the prose alone paints a terrific picture of Antarctica, and he puts in context the history of the times and the countries of the expeditions. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Antarctica, polar exploration--and especially the qualities needed in able leadership. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Sep 26, 2012 |
An epic tale of exploration, well detailed, with a cast of fascinatingly flawed characters and interwoven lives. Huntford explores the history of Antarctic exploration from the early days to the aftermath of Amundsen's victory and Scott's tragic death. Huntford also examines why Scott became a martyred hero, even though Amundsen (deservedly) arrived first at the Pole. ( )
  BruceCoulson | Jun 28, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375754741, Paperback)

On December 14, 1911, the classical age of polar exploration ended when Norway's Roald Amundsen conquered the South Pole. His competitor for the prize, Britain's Robert Scott, arrived one month later--but died on the return with four of his men only 11 miles from their next cache of supplies. But it was Scott, ironically, who became the legend, Britain's heroic failure, "a monument to sheer ambition and bull-headed persistence. His achievement was to perpetuate the romantic myth of the explorer as martyr, and ... to glorify suffering and self-sacrifice as ends in themselves." The world promptly forgot about Amundsen.

Biographer Ronald Huntford's attempt to restore Amundsen to glory, first published in 1979 under the title Scott and Amundsen, has been thawed as part of the Modern Library Exploration series, captained by Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame). The Last Place on Earth is a complex and fascinating account of the race for this last great terrestrial goal, and it's pointedly geared toward demythologizing Scott. Though this was the age of the amateur explorer, Amundsen was a professional: he left little to chance, apprenticed with Eskimos, and obsessed over every detail. While Scott clung fast to the British rule of "No skis, no dogs," Amundsen understood that both were vital to survival, and they clearly won him the Pole.

Amundsen in Huntford's view is the "last great Viking" and Scott his bungling opposite: "stupid ... recklessly incompetent," and irresponsible in the extreme--failings that cost him and his teammates their lives. Yet for all of Scott's real or exaggerated faults, he understood far better than Amundsen the power of a well-crafted sentence. Scott's diaries were recovered and widely published, and if the world insisted on lionizing Scott, it was partly because he told a better story. Huntford's bias aside, it's clear that both Scott and Amundsen were valiant and deeply flawed. "Scott ... had set out to be an heroic example. Amundsen merely wanted to be first at the pole. Both had their prayers answered." --Svenja Soldovieri

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:17 -0400)

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