Books that I've read about Polar Exploration

A few years ago I worked with two chaps (Pops and Sluggy) who'd each spent two and a half years in the Antarctic in the 1970s and 80s respectively. They made it sound quite interesting, and parts of their adventures sounded pretty appealing. I didn't fancy being away for 30 months though so thought nothing more about it until I joined the Met Office in 2002 and met a couple more people who'd been south (George and Karen) and discovered that one of my new colleagues (Will) was being lent to the British Antarctic Survey and would be going south to work as a weather forecaster for a couple of months. A plan formed and I set about reading about the Antarctic. Which turned out to be pretty fascinating so I read more. And more. And then for balance I read some books about the North Pole.

Anyway, with relatively little further ado, below are all the books I've read about polar exploration ranked by how good I thought they were. The books listed are available at or Abebooks. Alternatively, there's a bookshop called Moby Dick in Noordwijk in the Netherlands where they have a massive range of second-hand books about all matters polar. They don't take credit cards though. But there's a cash point 5 mins walk away!

NB: My scale, no suns being crap and five suns being marvellous, is a blatant rip-off of a clip art icon and Amazon's review scale. Note the appropriate meteorological twist to demonstrate original thought though. And as I bought most of the books listed their rating is generally higher than average!

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The author was the youngest member of Captain Scott's fated polar expedition in 1910-1913, and he was particularly close to Dr Wilson and Birdie Bowers who perished with Scott. Cherry-Garrard's role in the expedition was sciency and helping laying depots for the attempt on the Pole. He also famously made a mid-winter journey through darkness and blizzards with Wilson and Bowers to obtain a penguin egg for research purposes (this was the actual 'worst journey'). He also went out to try and meet Scott's polar party but stopped short of where they were laid up and consequently spent much of the rest of his life beating himself up about this. Anyway, the book itself is long and not always especially easy to follow it has to be said, but it's also quite graphic and harrowing about the tough journeys undertaken and about the last few weeks of Scott and his polar party's lives. If you're into polar stuff you simply have to read it.

Nimrod by Beau Riffenburgh
This book is the story of Shackleton's 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, aka the Nimrod Expedition or the Farthest South Expedition, in which as well as conducting plenty of science Shackleton and 3 chums came within 100 miles of the South Pole before Shackleton famously turned round when they were running out of supplies, saving their lives. 'Better a live donkey than a dead lion' was how I think he explained his decision. It's a decision all the more remarkable in an era when explorers were known to be heroic martyrs. Anyway, I digress, the book starts off with some background - a kind of potted biography of Shackleton and sets the scene with events when Shackleton was south with Scott a little earlier. Scott and Shackleton then fall out ahead of the Nimrod expedition, which the book discusses. The main bit of the book is, of course, the actual expedition, and discusses what each group of men did (they were split into groups going on different expeditions), focusing most on Shackleton. What's good is that the author has looked at all sorts of sources, thus giving a more balanced account of the expedition (and it's aftermath) than is, say, found in Shackleton's official expedition publication, In The Heart of Antarctica, touching on a number of conflicts and so on. Anyway, I found the book a little heavy going at first, but it was ultimately worth perservering. One scathing quote about the Daily Mail's style amused me in the book...some things never change.

In the Footsteps of Scott by Roger Mear and Robert Swan
The story of an an Antarctic expedition in the mid 1980s to walk unsupported to the South Pole following Scott's route. The participants wintered in Antarctica prior to setting off, then endured a fairly major problem when the plane coming to extract them from the Antarctic sunk after landing on pack ice. There are plenty of books about similar Antarctic treks, but what separates this book from others is firstly how candid the authors are about, for example, disagreements about who'd be in the party making the final trek to the Pole and their difficulties with each other during the trek. Worth reading. 

Walking on Thin Ice by David Hempleman-Adams
This book tells the story of explorer David Hempleman-Adams' trek to the North Pole in 1998 accompanied by Norwegian marine commando Rune Gjeldnes. Having failed to reach the pole twice, and having reached the South Pole, both magnetic poles and the geomagnetic North Pole as well as having climbed the highest peak on each continent Hempleman-Adams was understandably keen to reach the Pole! This book is basically a dairy of the trek, so inevitably covers the highs, lows and frustrations of a difficult journey. Having read many books about Antarctic expeditions, what stands out about the North Pole is just how much tougher it appears to be to reach. Reaching the South Pole may be uphill (to 10,000 FT) across sastrugi-riddled ice in terrible winds, but trekking to the North Pole involves crossing sea ice which can drift at quite alarming rates or break up into leads which need to be crossed or navigated round. Sea ice can also collide to form pressure ridges which need to be climbed...rather difficult when carrying one's supplies on a sledge! On top of that there are storms to contend with and the (sadly increasingly remote) threat of being attacked by a polar bear. Hempleman-Adams' account brings home how tough it is to get to the North Pole.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Based on diaries and interviews with surviving participants, Lansing wrote an account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's escape from a sinking, ice-bound ship in Antarctica to an almost deserted south Atlantic island with no loss of lives. Shackleton twice nearly made it to the South Pole before it was reached by Amundsen and Scott. After the South Pole was reached, Shackleton decided to mount an expedition to cross the Antarctic via the South Pole. He sent one vessel to McMurdo Sound to then make sledging expeditions towards the South Pole and lay food caches for Shackleton's party to then cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea. Unfortunately, Shackleton's vessel became stuck in ice in the Weddell Sea and eventually sank. Shackleton and his men then had just 3 open boats and meagre provisions to escape to a deserted sub-Antarctic Island, Elephant Island. From there Shackleton and 5 men rowed/sailed 800 miles to South Georgia which Shackleton and 2 men then crossed (10,000 FT mountains and lots of crevasses - not easy!) to get help from a whaling station. All in all a pretty miraculous escape. The odds on hitting South Georgia with a small boat and minimal navigating equipment from 800 miles are really very slim!

Lansing's account of the expedition draws on several diary sources and is an entertaining read on how the drama unfolds. Lansing also reveals details about some of the conflicts and hardships that inevitably rose, and having also read Shackleton's expedition diary, the details Lansing presents are a little 'juicier'. Inevitable I suppose.  Anyway, cracking account of an amazing escape.

Crossing Antarctica by Will Steger and Jon Bouwermaster
During the Austral summer of 1989-90 Will Steger led a six man multi-national team by dog sled from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to the South Pole and then eastwards across the zone of relative inaccessibility to a Russian base on the eastern edge of Antarctica. This 3741 mile traverse of the Antarctic was one of the more difficult traverses that could have been attempted and the first crossing of Antarctica on foot.

This book is basically Steger's diary of the expedition. The tough conditions encountered en route and logistical problems keeping the party supplied (a previous expedition had set down supply caches, and some supplies were flown in) stand out in the book, as does, to a degree, the monotony of polar travel. This stands to reason after day of skiing across a relatively featureless, white landscape with weather conditions the only variable is going to be monotonous.

This book is OK. Some of the bits are quite interesting, especially the bits about Antarctic politics and what different Antarctic research bases are like. For the rest it's pretty similar to other post 1970-ish Antarctic trek diary I've read.  In a way this is almost inevitable; early polar expeditions (e.g. those of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen) were much more a voyage into the unknown and this tends to come across in their books. This said, I thought this book was better than similar books I've read.

Of Ice and Men by Sir Vivian Fuchs
Huge amounts have been written about the 'Golden Age' of polar history when Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton et al. vied with each other to reach the pole. With the Pole reached, there appears to have been a decline in interest in Antarctica between the two world wars, with much less published. This stands to reason with the most publicly appealing goal being reached, although a lot of exploration still went on, and sealing/whaling continued, but the economics driving these industry make stuff being published about it less likely. Post-Second World War Antarctic literature has focused on scientific discovery and individual personal achievement. However, much of this work seems to be relative recent. Being interested in Antarctic history I was keen to find out more about Antarctica between this Golden Age and the present day. Fuchs' book addresses this gap

Fuchs' book is basically the history of British government-backed interest in the Antarctic between 1943, when interest was revived through military necessity during the Second World War and Operation Talabin, ultimately the forerunner of the British Antarctic Survey, came into being, and 1973 when Fuchs retired as head of the British Antarctic Survey. The book covers how British interest went from military reconnaissance to protected and establishing a political interest under the cover of scientific discovery to purely being able to concentrate on science once the 1961 Antarctic Treaty had been signed allowing political issues to take a back seat.

Parts of the book are, perhaps by necessity, rather dry and something of a chronology. However parts of the book focus on more interesting things and events, and these are nicely, and at times wittily, include the evacuation of Deception Island following volcanic eruption, an occasional 'mild skirmish' with Argentineans (who Fuchs' mentions a number of times were also most helpful towards the Survey), and the inevitable and obviously sad and unfortunate tragedies. The book ends focusing on what life is like down south, and one can see the seeds of BAS culture being sown by Fuchs and his colleagues.

A good book then, and nicely filled a gap in Antarctic history in my mind.

Pink Ice by Klaus Dodds
This books is basically a political history of the Antarctic from a British point of view, explaining why Britain has ended up with its own sector of the Antarctic under the Antarctic Treaty. The book also touches on the recent political history of the Falklands. It was a pretty interesting and informative, if rather dry, book written in the style of an academic text book, and if nothing else it brings home what an incredible achievement getting the Antarctic Treaty ratified was.

Berserk in the Antarctic by David Mercy
Whilst travelling around South America the author decides he wants to go to the Antarctic and unwilling/unable to join one of the cruise ships that travel between the Antarctic Peninsula and southern South America happens upon a young Norwegian sailing to the Antarctic alone on what sounds like a pretty basic 27 foot yacht. The author convinces the Norwegian to take him and an Argentinean the author had fairly recently met along with him. The Norwegian agrees and woefully unprepared/unequipped (e.g. limited cold weather gear and funds) they brave Force 12 storms in the Drake Passage to get to the Antarctic where they spend some time marvelling at the sites and visiting various research bases before attempting to go to South Georgia. In the meantime the Argentinean falls out with them and works his passage home on a cruise ship whilst the author and the Norwegian proceed to then almost get shipwrecked going to South Georgia and limp into southern South America instead. A great adventure and experience, but the way the tale was told didn't really float my boat - it was more like a diary than the sort of travel book that supplements adventure with additional information.

Nansen by Roland Huntford
Fridtjof Nansen was a legendary Norwegian explorer who as well as becoming the first modern-age explorer to traverse Greenland and setting a 'furthest north' in the late nineteenth century also distinguished himself scientifically in fields of, amongst other things, neurology and oceanography. Nansen can be seen as a 'father' of the 'Heroic Age' Antarctic explorers in that techniques he researched and tried were then used by others such as Amundsen and Scott. As well as exploring and being a scientist Nansen was also played a role in Norway gaining independence from Sweden in the early 20th century and the country's subsequent striving for international recognition as an independent country before going on to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with southeast European and Russian refugees and famine in Russia. Nansen did shit loads. Obviously a talented guy. I'd read stuff about his trek across Greenland and his attempt to reach the North Pole in the late 19th century, but I wanted to find out more about what Nansen did before and after. This book obviously addressed that, although to be honest the latter part of the book (about Nansen's work with the League of Nations, famine in Russia and refugees) was a little confusing at times, which to spoilt the book a little for me. Nevertheless I did enjoy this book, and as one of the great polar explorers Nansen's work deserves publicizing.

Antarctic on a Plate by Alexa Thomson
The author is a former outdoor pursuits camp chef who gives up her real job as a city type in Sydney to do 'something different' and becomes a cook for an Antarctic food camp. I used to be a cook in a hotel, and have been a weather forecaster at a luxurious Antarctic Peninsula research station, so my attention was very much drawn to this book! The book focuses on what life at an Antarctic field camp (which is used as an 'gateway' for explorers wanting to do particularly gnarly stuff like trek to the South Pole), the characters that come and go, the interrelationships between the people on the camp and what life in general in this kind of environment is like. I found this book to be an entertaining read; it certainly matched what I'd heard 'down south' about such camps, and this book is much better than other books I've read about what contemporary life in the Antarctic is like (e.g. Big Dead Place).

Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson
This book is a book about the Antarctic with a difference. The author has spent a fair amount of time working at American Antarctic bases and this book documents his experiences working there and ultimately his frustrations with his management. The books is fairly interesting in that occasional interesting snippets of Antarctic information appear, but for the most part this book is about the frustrations and politics of work, which just goes to show that no matter where you work or what you and in spite of how interesting a job or workplace may be, all jobs carry with them 'the usual shit'. This said some of the author's management decisions seem strange and unjust. Anyway, this book's OK...I guess if you were going to be working at an American Antarctic base it would give you an idea of what life could be like there, but this aside it doesn't tell you a huge amount about Antarctica itself.

True North by Bruce Henderson
Two Americans - Robert Peary and Frederick Cook - claimed to have reached the North Pole within a year or so of each other early in the 20th century. Both claims have been brought under substantial question, although for a long time Peary was recognized as being first. Henderson's book looks at both men's background, early exploring career and then their claims to being first at the Pole, and ultimately ends up being pro-Cook casting considerable doubts on Peary's claim. This book is a really good read (better than Fergus Fleming's Ninety Degrees North which covers Peary and Cook as well as earlier, and later, Arctic expeditions) and raises considerable food for thought. The only minor point that I wasn't so keen on is that the book is pro-Cook when I'd have rather read something slightly more obviously impartial. However, this is nitpicking. This is the best book I've read about these chap's race for the North Pole!

Ninety Degrees North by Fergus Fleming
Most of my reading about polar exploration has focused on the Antarctic, principally because when I joined the Met Office I knew I would have the chance to go there (and I did, and it really is very pleasant). To my mind the Antarctic is the superior polar region with a number of huge advantages over the Arctic.....lack of land/ice based predators, penguins and most of all the fact that it's on land so is a tangible entity rather than a big lump ice floating and drifting around at the whim and mercy of wind and current. However, as I found out whilst reading this book the Arctic has one redeeming factor - controversy surrounding who got to the North Pole first....was it Cook? Was it Peary? Was it Byrd? Does flying over it count anyway? Fleming's book recounts the tale of the discovery of the North Pole. The bulk of the book focuses on failed mid 19th century expeditions, and occasionally some interestingly gruesome facts come to light (just one of the things I like about polar exploration!) but when Norwegians and Cook and Peary get involved it becomes pretty interesting as they vied to get to the North Pole first. The book then ends discussing the controversy surrounding Cook and Peary's claims to be first to the North Pole (chaps, if you're going to make it up at least try and lie convincingly!) before getting on the next wave of Arctic exploration where Byrd may have flown over the Pole and Amundsen did (in fact Amundsen was the first chap to see both poles!). I liked the last half of this book, but found the first half quite hard going. Good read though, and now I'll have to find out more about Peary and Cooks expeditions and creative compass work!

Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes
As if coming second in the race for the South Pole having suffered all manner of hardships to get there and then croaking on the way home isn't enough, Scott was well and truly 'bashed' (unfairly in my opinion) in Antarctic literature in the 1960's, 70's and 80's. Fiennes biography is unashamedly pro-Scott but makes a number of good points in Scotts defence. I'd read one or two of Fiennes tales of his own Antarctic adventure and found them, inevitably I suppose, somewhat self aggrandizing, so I delayed starting this biography which turned out to be a very entertaining and well written read.

The Coldest March by Susan Solomon
Soloman re-visits Captain Scott's journey to the South Pole and discusses where things went wrong for Scott. Solomon makes particular reference to the weather pointing out that the weather during Scott's trek was much worse than average, and much worse than Scott expected. Scott's weather expectations were, quite reasonably, based on the weather reports from previous trips made in the area (by himself and Shackleton), and it's only in recent years since the introduction of weather stations close to Scott's route that it has become apparent how unseasonable the weather was during his ill-fated trip to the Pole. The fatal blizzard, for example, was a very exceptional weather event. Good book this one...I especially liked it because it focused on the weather, but all in all I think Ranulph Fiennes' biography of Scott is the best book about Scott available at the time of writing (summer 2005).

Waiting to Fly by Ron Naveen
When I worked in the Antarctic I discovered that I really liked Adelie penguins and when I got home I decided to find out more about them. Naveen is a penguin expert who regularly visits the Antarctic. His book is part log of the sort of work he does, part history of previous Antarctic expeditions where attention was given over to penguins and part guide to how some species of penguins live. I really enjoyed this, and was pleased to note that from Naveen's description of penguin body language I didn't annoy a couple of penguins as much as I thought I might have whilst once taking photos. This book also tells readers how penguins pro-create!!!!!

Cherry by Sarah Wheeler
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of Captain Scott's ill-fated second expedition to Antarctica in the early 20th century. A lot has, of course, been written about other more notable member's of this expedition, but Cherry-Garrard's tale is nevertheless quite interesting. Cherry-Garrard wrote a popular account of his travels (The Worst Journey in the World) which, amongst other things, details a lengthy winter trip to collect penguin eggs. Sadly his post-Antarctic life didn't go too well, largely because he tortured himself about whether or not he could have saved Scott's party before they died having reached the pole.

To the Poles Without a Beard by Catherine Hartley
Tale of a 30 year old lady who walks to the South Pole. And then goes to the North Pole. Mildly entertaining tale, but diaries of early 20th century explorers are far, far better.

These books are available at or unless they're out of print, in which case Abebooks is probably the best place to try and find them.

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Dan Suri, 5 September 2009