Glory missions of the world's Arctic explorers poles apart

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 February, 1999, 12:00am

There is no land at the North Pole, only moving ice. So, as the authors of Icemen tell us: 'There is no reason to leave any markers for posterity: within three days a flag left at the North Pole may have drifted up to 18 miles [29 kilometres] away.' And yet for hundreds of years, and especially for the past 160 years, explorers have been drawn north, looking for the top of the world, and racing to be the first to get there for their personal and national glory.

This is the story of some of the greatest expeditions of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Written as a companion to authors Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan's BBC television series on Arctic explorers, it chronicles the tribulations and disappointments most of these adventurers put themselves through to reach what for many remained an elusive goal.

In an era when airlines fly over the North Pole daily and submarines slip under it, technology has made us blase. But for much of the past 1.5 centuries, Arctic explorations were big news. Britain, Norway, Canada, the United States and even Italy competed for the glory of being the first to reach the pole, the first to fly over it or the first to sail under it.

And, since the great explorers were relentless self-publicists, as much by inclination as by necessity - they were forced to write about their expeditions to finance the next ones - the race generated maximum excitement.

It became particularly exciting when explorers such as the two Americans Frederick Cook and Robert Peary fell out and made rival claims, setting off huge controversies which continue to this day.

But the stories of men like the Swede, Salomon Andree, who decided the only way to get to the pole was by balloon, are more touching precisely because they are not so distorted by the macho explorer's arrogance. With champagne for toasting the king of Sweden, relatively light skiing clothes for surviving what was supposed to be no more than an Arctic summer, he and his team set out in 1897 to cross the icecap. They crashed but seemed to be surviving well on a diet of polar bear and algae soup.

Unfortunately, their culinary experiments with raw bear meat killed them. The bears were riddled with trichinosis - an Arctic fact of life, realised 50 years after his death when a group of Inuit went down with the same symptoms Andree described in his diaries.

As well as the Boys Own adventure stories, however, Icemen chronicles the Arctic's role in international intrigue and diplomacy. For the governments which backed the explorations, the goals were not the motivations of personal glory and adventure which drove the pioneers, but more often commercial and military advantage.

The first explorations, undertaken when it was not known whether there was land or permanent ice in the Far North, were sent to look for the North-West Passage around the northern coast of Canada.

Later, the Arctic became one of the most important battlefields of the Cold War. Most people when they thought of intercontinental ballistic missiles and mutually assured destruction, tended to assume the war to end the world would take place across Europe, and the vastness of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. In fact, the shortest trajectory for missiles travelling between the Soviet Union and North America was across the North Pole.

The final chapter examines the sad destruction of Inuit culture and the abuse of the Eskimo peoples by both the early explorers and the Canadian governments. This is a very readable book, which combines good, if selective, history and analysis with the lightness and drama one would expect of a television documentary series.

One complaint. The book suffers greatly from a lack of good maps to illustrate the routes taken by the explorers and the places where they were forced to turn back, or explain the circumstances in which they failed. Of the three North Poles - the geographical pole, from which all other points are due South, the magnetic pole, and the 'Pole of Relative Inaccessibility', the furthest point from land in all directions - only the first is marked on either of the book's two very basic maps. Given the role the poles played in the history of Arctic exploration, that is a remarkable omission.

Icemen: A History Of The Arctic And Its Explorers by Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan Boxtree, $220