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1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration

by Edward J. Larson

Pub Date: March 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-06-256447-4
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Pulitzer Prize winner Larson (History and Law/Pepperdine Univ.; The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789, 2014, etc.) records the three most important expeditions during a highly significant year in polar exploration.

The Gilded Age was a time of great wealth, and men and women wanted to prove they were more than just society figures sipping champagne. Primary among these was the most famous climber at the time, Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, the Duke of the Abruzzi, who held the farthest-north record at the Arctic and first ascent on mountains on three continents. In 1909, he turned to the “Pole of Altitude” in the Himalayas, “one of the world’s highest mountains.” Mount Everest was out of the question, since Nepal and Tibet had closed their borders, but this would prove an equally difficult challenge. Focusing on the North Pole was American Robert E. Peary, who had mounted seven prior expeditions and had the lost toes to prove it. He had experienced many setbacks—e.g., trying to traverse sea ice that could carry away supplies, disrupt trails, and disorient returning groups. Peary was obsessed with gaining the pole and glory and downplayed scientific records and research while they wintered over. He also plundered the north and the Inuit Nation of religious objects, furs, and tusks. Ernest Shackleton relied on ponies and a fairly useless motor car to transport supplies in the Antarctic. His group included the best of scientific experts, split so one group, led by Edgeworth David, headed for the magnetic pole, which is not fixed but migrates with the Earth’s fluid core, and the other, led by Shackleton, for the geographic pole. Throughout, Larson delivers riveting tales of stalwart explorers risking their lives for discovery in some of the world’s harshest areas. Their successes and even their failures made them heroes.

A fascinating look at the adventures of remarkably resilient men, so well-related as to make you feel the chill.