by John V.H. Dippel
Sometimes the idea that seems like the last thing anyone would want to do actually ends up with a rather zealous, albeit meager, band of followers. Such as the case with polar exploration. The early years of polar expeditions, around the mid-1800s, started with grand enthusiasm, ample financial backing, and a hearty spirit of adventure. Enthusiasm and financial support waned, though, as expeditions failed to achieve their goals of discovering the fabled “Open Polar Sea” (which turned out to be a massive sheet of ice in the Arctic), finding the Northwest Passage, or marking a new farthest North or farthest South record. Sometimes the hardships of these adventures could be spun into gripping tales, and many explorers earned financing by writing stories and articles about their journeys. Sometimes the hardships could not be glossed over, and tales of enduring months without sunlight in dug-out ice caves too small to stand in contributed to the disillusionment about the potential victories to be gained in polar environments. However the public opinion shifted, the devoted band of adventurers never swayed in pursuing their life goals of polar exploration, leaving a history of remarkable journeys that occasionally seemed too good to be true but always left an impression on those who followed their travails and travels.
“To the Ends of the Earth: The Truth Behind the Glory of Polar Exploration” by John V.H. Dippel discusses various themes in the early ages of concerted polar exploration, through the race to the North Pole (supposedly reached in 1908) and the South Pole (reached in 1911). Dippel covers the broader societal impact on polar exploration, from the early eagerness of colonizing countries to stake further claims, to the later hesitation to put so much money toward such small efforts with even smaller results. He also discusses the unique aspects of renowned explorers who led multiple expeditions, citing journals and letters to share insights into the personality, motives, and leadership styles that contributed to either their success or downfall. Of course, Dippel also shares almost excessive details about the conditions of polar exploration, from the impact of the limited diet of crews stranded in ice for years longer than their rations were meant to last, to the physical impact of extended time in frozen environments without sunlight (skin turns green without sun??). This book addresses multiple aspects of polar exploration, giving a comprehensive picture of what elements – natural and manmade – the crews were up against.
I found this book to be both fascinating and slightly horrifying – perhaps it was fascinating because it was horrifying. The conditions of life in polar environments sounds terrible, and yet I couldn’t put the book down. While Dippel clearly distinguishes the themes in his book, I felt confused at times because he wrote according to theme rather than chronology. He frequently referenced the same expedition in multiple chapters, but I couldn’t remember who did what because it didn’t follow a chronological order. Overall, very engaging. Maybe skip chapter 6 if you have a weak stomach.