Check It Out: Exploring Antarctica from the comfort of home

Nearly 100 years ago, Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. His team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at their destination in December 1911. Leaving behind a small tent and a letter stating their accomplishment, they returned safely to their base camp the following month.

Meanwhile, a British expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, set forth from their Antarctic base camp with the same goal of reaching the pole first. Upon arrival, they were disheartened to learn that Amundsen had beaten them by five weeks. Their return trip was hampered by deteriorating weather, dwindling supplies, and injuries. All five members of this team would eventually perish before reaching base camp.

Differing opinions of the two explorers have emerged over time. Amundsen is credited for his careful preparation, choice of appropriate equipment and clothing, and sole focus on reaching the pole and returning quickly. Scott is often portrayed as heroic but inept. He is faulted for bringing ponies instead of sled dogs, wearing heavy woolens instead of furs, and disdaining the use of skis.

Both men kept detailed diaries.

In "Race to the Pole," author Roland Huntford presents these diaries unedited, with daily entries from both arranged next to each other. The reader gets a sense of the different strategies and mindsets of the two men. While Amundsen is exultant after reaching the pole, Scott's entries reflect a mood of increasing desperation. For a more traditional narrative, see "The Last Place on Earth," an earlier work by Huntford.

Edward Larson, in "An Empire of Ice," departs from this conventional account. While allowing Amundsen his place in history, Larson places British explorations in the larger perspective of their primary purpose as scientific enterprises.

Scott was required by his financial backers to conduct surveying and gather other scientific data. Amundsen was unhindered by such burdens. Larson's sympathetic treatment increases our appreciation for the accomplishments of Scott and others of this era.

In "Cold Hands, Warm Heart," contemporary adventurer Tess Burrows writes of her participation in an international effort to recreate the Amundsen/Scott race. The 60-year old grandmother and self-professed hippie would contend with a variety of hardships — financial, physical, and psychological. Though she is ultimately forced out of the race, the author succeeds in reaching her primary goal of raising money and awareness for the people of Tibet.

Two other recent books about Antarctica also deserve mention. In "Among Penguins," Noah Strycker, a recent college grad, chronicles his three-month internship in a remote field camp, studying the effects of climate change on a colony of Adelie penguins. His enthusiasm for his subject is infectious; his descriptions of the harshness of his daily life are unenviable.

John Hanc decided to celebrate his 50th birthday in an unusual way, by signing up to run the Antarctica Marathon. "The Coolest Race on Earth" is his account of competing in the world's most difficult 26.2-mile footrace. Mixing humor and adventure, Hanc writes engagingly of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

All of the above titles are available to cardholders of the Newport Beach Public Library. Mittens are not required.

CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. All titles may be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.

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