Cecil Kuhne, editor,
Near Death in the Arctic: True Stories of Disaster & Survival
(Vintage, 2009)

While sitting in my easy chair in front of a burning fireplace, I enjoyed reading about places I will never go in Near Death in the Arctic: True Stories of Disaster & Survival. Very few would have the courage to explore such dangerous places.

Many died when exploring the polar regions on Planet Earth, but some survived to tell of their harrowing treks. I knew some of these explorers by name, but had never heard of many others and their terrific will to go where none had ever gone before. The explorers: Valerian Albanov, Roald Amunsen, Douglas Mawsen, Richard E. Byrd, Apsley Cherry-Garrard (sent to rescue Robert Falcon Scott), David Lewis, Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Mike Stroud and Helen Thayer. Some, such as Amunsen, were well equipped for their journeys and had the hardiness and skills required to undertake the harsh conditions and the top and bottom of the world.

These accounts of polar exploration were excerpted from the written journals and books by the explorers themselves. It is amazing that they could write at all after days of suffering from exertion and cold. Some suffered from snow blindness and frostbite, and some were near death in the most extreme conditions on Earth before being rescued. I felt frustrated at times because excerpted material left a lot of questions in my mind.

And, since these journeys took place in various parts of polar regions, both north and south, I missed not seeing a single map or illustration in the 456-page paperback.

Even so, this book is not for the faint of heart. The best thing about it is that the stories are true and written by very adventurous souls. Here are two examples:

The first story is about 25 men in the crew of the ship Saint Anna who became icebound in the Siberian Arctic for more than a year, and of the 14 who decided to set out with sledges and kayaks to try and reach land in 1912. After an icy trek of 235 miles, only two survived. Their provisions were scanty, they lacked enough fuel and their compasses were broken. Finally, after losing men to falls through ice, illness and starvation, two men -- Alexander Konrad and Valerian Albanov -- made it to land where they were rescued. Albanov, who wrote the account of their travel over a rugged polar ice pack on foot, skis and sledges pulled by men, shows the characters of the men involved in spite of the extreme hardships and provides vivid descriptions of their journey. Albanov's journals show their humanity both their failures and resourcefulness.

The technology of the day did not include GPS or other high-tech gear when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made it to the South Pole in 1910-1912. He relied on well-designed sledges and dogs to pull them. He had a goal in mind: to beat the Englishman Scott's team. He had planned and prepared well for the rugged trip over mountains and treacherous ice. He prepared caches along the way for the return trip. Amundsen's detailed descriptions of the dangerous glaciers his party crossed are harrowing. They stared down some crevasses 1,000 feet deep. They were at altitudes of over 10,000 feet at times, and there were blizzards. He also describes details such a beard trimming on Sunday since ice builds up in facial hair, and what they ate (pemmican, soup and biscuits). In describing his four companions and the harsh conditions, Amundsen‘s writing style based upon his diaries is excellent. After reaching the South Pole where no human had been before, one of the party passed around cigars and gave Amundsen the box with four left to remember the day. He was surprised and overwhelmed with this gesture. Details and descriptions of the ice make this story memorable.

review by
Barbara Spring

29 August 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new