on February 24, 2011
Obviously, those who can't find fault with Robert Falcon Scott won't like the book. If you are one of those, read "The Coldest March" by Susan Solomon. You'll find it to your taste.
However, if you are ready for a solid analysis about how Roal Amundsen and Scott each organized and faced their heroic voyage to the South Pole, THIS is the book to read. The book covers Amundsen's and Scott's origins and background in Polar travel (Scott badly overmatched there).
When Amundsen learned from previous voyages, namely his NorthWest Passage succes and the Belgica's wintering inside the Antarctic's circle, Scott still hung to man-hauling, having learned absolutly NOTHING from his Discovery days. The paradox with Scott lies in the fact that so-called "impartial" historians who praised him has a "scientific-minded" explorer cannot explain why this "scientific-minded" navy officer still had his crew travel like cavemen in horrific conditions.
Amundsen isn't without faults either. His treatment of Haljmar Johansen for instance wasn't very gracious to say the least.
I'll let you draw you own conclusion, but,for my taste, Roland Huntford analysis is the definite work on the South Polar Race of 1911-1912.
on February 14, 2004
Mr. Huntford really makes the grade.
It is hard to find any literature by the English on Amundsen's feats if not only to be used as a dark background to those of their fellowcitizen, Scott. It is very disappointing indeed and were it not for Mr. Huntford's excellent book, one would think anglosaxons simply cannot discuss their own failures.
Is the book biassed? Of course, wherever there is a human being as an author there is subjectivity. Don't make me laugh. The whole thing is to try to stick to healthy criterion and sound information when discussing your subject matter. This Mr. Huntford does extremely well.
And yes, the man has a certain dislike for Scott. Easy to understand: there are lots of anglosaxon books praising Scott's ultimate failure (unless your goal is martyrdom, euthanasia or the like, if you don't finish your journey alive you HAVE failed)
So what? aren't all those other books about Scott often simply sentimental elegies to Scott? and they lack the profoundness of research and open discussion of the facts we can enjoy in this one.
Read "A first rate tragedy" on Scott, by D. Prescott, and you'll see what I mean (on the bad side). On the other hand, read "The noose of laurels" by H. Wally, and you'll have another fine example of thourough presentation of facts and their interpretation.
Amundsen was a real explorer, he succeeded through all of his undertakings, simply because he had a modern approach (professional) to things. All the flaws in Scott's plans would not occur to the most idiotic explorer of our days: i.e. go to the Pole without being able to ski? bring no spare parts for your engine-tractors? Come on, if you heard that on the news tonight you'd think of it as a very bad joke! Scott was a dilettante, and he paid the bitter price.
Scott not even learned form previous experience. At least Shackleton did. The Endurance expedition was a case of bad luck despite good preparation. Terra Nova was a chapuza. Bad luck? Give me a break!
Scott deserves respect, he sure does, but Amundsen deserves not only that, much more than that, he accomplished what many others (not only Scott) were unable to achieve, and not only in the Antartic, also in the Artic. Face reality.
The book is excellent from ALL points of view (good reading too). Only I wish it included more photos and more detailed maps (although it does include enough of both).
Don't be silly, don't waste your time on other books if you want to know about Amundsen and/or Scott.
on December 10, 2003
Between December 1911 and January 1912, two expeditions reached the South Pole, the last unexplored place on the surface of the planet. Amundsen, the competent norwegian leader, reached the pole and came back to tell his story; Scott, the controversial british leader, reached the pole but could not come back, and died in the middle of the frozen continent. Amundsen's feat is one of the greatest and cleanest of all human history; Scott's tragic outcome became matter of legend.
Human nature and humanity's predilection for heroic (even if useless) accomplishments made Scott widely known, and made Amundsen a bitter old man unitl his death (surprise!: Amundsen's death, years after he reached the pole, was also kind of heroic and widely useless). When Huntford wrote this book (back in the seventies, if I'm not mistaken), Scott was the hero and Amundsen was "that norseman that went to the Pole".
Huntford's is one of the first books to elevate Amundsen to his real and deserved status. Through almost 30 chapters and more than 600 pages, Huntford compares Amundsen and Scott, not only their polar expeditions, but also their background lives in respective countries, past influences, exploration techniques, people they were related to, and much more. From the beginning, using a compelling writing style (academic but never boring or slow) Huntford paints Scott like a buffoon, a pitiable character driven by dreams of glory and power. Maybe Scott was not as bad as Huntford thinks, and maybe Amundsen was not as godlike as well; the reader has to absorb the huge amount of information about the expeditions contained in this book, and decide for himself if he completely believes the biographical information about Scott and Amundsen. Even so, this book is not for readers with a small capacity and willingness for changing his thoughts about Amundsen and Scott. And, no doubt, Scott's admirers will never go past page 100.
This book could be a "Grade:10" if there were photographs of the expeditions included.
To complement Huntford's book I would suggest Cherry-Garrard's "The worst journey in the world", a great account on Scott's side of the exploration. I said "complement" and not "oppose". If you read both books, you'll know what I mean.
on August 31, 2003
In the winter of 1911-12, a British naval expedition under the command of Robert Falcon Scott set out to reach the South Pole, but were beaten to it by 5 Norwegians and their dogs.
Roland Huntford's account of this neck-and-neck race through the Antarctic stands out from others in that it gives a complete picture of both British and Norwegian teams, the men leading them, the men following, and the political, nationalistic, scientific, & emotional motives driving both expeditions. This has resulted in a controversial book, because the parallel accounts naturally lead to comparisons, as Huntford explores the question of why the Norwegians succeeded while the British were hampered with delays, shortages, and finally, disaster. He lays the blame at Scott's door, citing evidence of faulty planning & leadership, and comparing it to that of the more experienced Roald Amundsen.
This could be dry stuff for reading, but it isn't. I can open any part of this book and be intstantly drawn into Huntford's narrative--his energetic character sketches, "gentlemen's disagreements", snatches of diaries and letters, diets of the rival camps, scientifically detailed descriptions of the terrain, and all the physical discomfort that comes with sledging for hours in winds of -30 degrees C. It is a scientific rather than heroic account, tracking the teams over glaciers and through nightmarish mazes of crevasses to the accompaniment of sextant and altitude readings.
Scott loyalists will not like this book, as Huntford ruthlessly points up the errors in judgement that led to the death of Scott's party 11 miles short of the main food depot, and shows little reverence for this long-revered British hero. One certainly detects an anti-Scott bias, and in some places I thought Huntford's interpretations of Scott's actions may not have been fair. However, the real damage lies in Scott's own words: "...In future food must be worked so that we do not run so short if the weather fails us. We mustn't get into a hole like this again..."
Told from several viewpoints on both sides, this is so far the most three-dimensional history of the race to the South Pole I've encountered, and the most arresting.
on March 9, 2003
"The Last Place on Earth" (formerly published as "Scott and Amundsen") is Roland Huntford's version of what he calls "the last great voyage of terrestrial discovery" -- the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century. Huntford weaves a gripping tale of how Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott planned their separate expeditions, laid in supplies, navigated and finally reached the holy grail of 90° South. Amundsen beat Scott to the Pole by a month and returned home to a hero's welcome. Scott and his team, on the other hand, died on the way back from the Pole, and their bodies were discovered months later. It's quite a tale, and Huntford tells it in such a way as to keep the reader engrossed and riveted. Unfortunately, he cannot keep his admiration for Amundsen or his contempt for Scott concealed or even low-key.
In every page, Amundsen is presented as a polar genius, who soaked up knowledge and used it to guarantee (as much as possible) a safe journey to the Pole and back. He develops his own rations and spends endless time fine-tuning his equipment. He uses a pattern of Eskimo clothing to keep warm and dry. He depends on seal meat to ward off scurvy, and brings along far more food and fuel than he actually needs. Generally, he knows exactly what he's doing.
In stark contrast, Scott is depicted as a world-class buffoon, who acheived his station in life through connections rather than talent. Every action he takes is shot through with disaster, from the way he designed his sledges to the rations he took. And let's not even talk about his attempt at going to the Pole with ponies instead of sledge dogs. According to Huntford, he can't do anything right, and he pays for it with his life and the lives of the four men he took to the Pole with him. (His depiction of Scott resulted in Scott's son angrily and publicly disowning the book, once he saw what the author had done to his father's reputation.)
"The Last Place on Earth" is a story of adventure and foolhardiness, life and death in the cold, snowy wastes of Antarctica. The reader, however, is urged to keep the author's bias in mind.
on December 6, 2002
There are few books as satisfying as this one, both in the inherent interest of the story and in the literary execution in all its enthralling detail. A few truly excellent books come to mind, such as Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb or Halberstam's Best and the Brightest. This book is indisputably of that caliber and every page exudes the love of the author for its subject.
Huntford tells the story of the conquest of the S Pole as a race between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. On innumerable levels, the book is utterly fascinating: as pure adventure, as a contrast of extraordinary personalities, and (my purpose in reading it) as a management challenge. It also has plenty on the historical context, set against the beginning of the decline of the British Empire at the same time that a Norwegian nationalism was being forged. It was also the last great exploration that was done largely without higher technological vehicles such as airplanes and land rovers.
On the one hand, there is Scott, the quintessential bureaucrat of the British Navy: he is most comfortable in a huge hierarchy that lends him indisputable authority and is driven by a smoldering ambition and hopes to advance himself via the discovery of the S Pole. He is exceedingly rigid, arrogant yet painfully insecure, and pathetically unsuited to command. His failure to learn, in part because he is more comfortable at a desk with books than in observing real life, eventually leads to the ultimate failure. Nonetheless, he embodied a certain British romantic ideal, which he consciously cultivated: the heroic explorer who takes great risks for the sake of discovery and national glory. With his remarkable physical stamina and literary gifts, he created a legend for himself that his ambitious widow spent a lifetime advancing.
On the other hand, there is a consummate professional explorer, Amundsen, who decided at age 15 that he would master Arctic travel and live the life of a discover. Amundsen systematically learned how Eskimos lived, from their primitive technology (perfectly adapted to the polar climate) to their languages, and apprenticed to the greatest arctic explorer of the age (Nansen). He was also a shrewd and natural leader, able to lead a "happy ship" without rigid hierarchy of command. It is a case study in highly capable management of a monomaniac, and as we should all know, he succeeds (I give nothing away here). This book explains why in wonderful detail.
The reader really comes to feel that he knows these men by the end of the book. At every step, we witness a subtle psychology emerge. Genius though he might have been, Amundsen made plenty of mistakes and lived a lonely and unhappy life, much like a general who spends years, or even decades, planning a decisive victory that is decided in only a few hours of combat and then feels hollow. Scott, for all his disorganization and petty egotism, was better with the media and more in sych with the expectations of his times, which explains why his story of a noble failure eclipsed that of Amundsen for so long.
Warmly recommended. This is a great gift book and a truly splendid read. If you are considering getting it, you won't be disappointed.
on April 11, 2002
"The Last Place On Earth" is a book that I read some time ago, and is a volume I would not willing part with. Roland Huntford brilliantly relates the history of Antarctic exploration through the telling of the lives of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. The book is well written; the kind you are unwilling to put down. For me, he treats his subjects objectively. There are some reviewers who believe him biased against Scott but it is well to remember that Mr. Huntford was granted access to Scott's journal by his son so he was able to read the unvarnished truth about the British expedition, which until then was seen as a glorious failure. The book was a revelation to many people who had considered Scott a hero (I recall the comments of a surprised Alistair Cooke) because much of his rougher spots were glossed over. It is the contrast between the British and Norwegian expeditions that brings home the points of leadership and makes this book groundbreaking in upsetting notions of glory.
I recommend this book for its information about the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic and the story of the rivalry to be the first to the South Pole.
on April 10, 2002
Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth (Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole), re-published as part of the Modern Library Exploration Series after its original publication in the 1970s, is the precursor to the whole spate of recent books on Arctic explorations, both North and South, to the delight of many readers, myself hungrily among them. The author tells an exciting story and was able to effectively destroy the grand heroic myth of Scott and his run for the South Pole while resurrecting Amundsen as the genius of exploration that he was. Huntford's influence is easily shown in the various volumes since then specifically trying to re-establish Scott among the pantheon of Arctic heroes instead of the its crown fool.
The narrative is handled well and told in an appropriately breathless, gripping manner. The author beats down Scott and builds up Amundsen a little too strongly and frequently instead of letting the story itself make his point a little more quietly but this is a minor quibble for those who love a cold tale of exploring told with such heat. A fine job that has spawned an industry of writing.
on February 8, 2002
The gripping tale of the 'race' to the South Pole from 1910-1912 is told with a deft hand at narrative by Roland Huntford. It is one of those biographical pieces (It also serves as a bio on Scott and Amundsen) which makes you almost believe that you are there with these men.
In saying this however (And I stress that I am a Shackleton person and don't rate Scott much) I question how exact it is in that there is so much debunking of Scott that Huntford seems to just stop short of accusing him of murder (I am also amazed that Sir Peter Scott did not sue Huntford when the book first came out, it says much about the man)with regards to Oates walking to his death. I do agree that Amundsen was a brilliant tactician at Polar exploration and Scott was an arrogant incompetent, but Amundsen was also a bit of a glory-seeking oppurtunist and Scott did have some decent remarkable talents, telling a good story for one, that would have been best suited in areas other than Polar exploration. If the RGS, Markham, Scott etc.. had a dangerous fault it was that they allowed emotions pervade areas where sentimentality was destructive.
on October 8, 2001
The beauty of this brilliant book is that it fills you with a sense of wonder, thinking of the dramas life can sometimes compose. As if it wants to show fiction writers how it is done ! Amundsen and Scott's race to the South Pole is one of those cases, in fact one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century. Fortunately, in Roland Huntford it finds the chronicler it deserves. Huntford is not only evidently interested in the story and the characters, but also approaches the facts with Thoukididean objectivity asking all those "Whys" and "Why nots" that had been pending for decades. His research is clearly painstaikingly exhaustive and thorough and deserves praise. But more so does his courage to shed light on all those annoying details pertaining to Scott's fatal shortcomings, in what is without doubt one of the most painful debunkings ever. In Huntford's words Scott is the "necessary hero" and absolute personification of an Empire in decline.
But in its core this book is not about Polar exploration. It is a relentless study on leadership and human nature. It this sense it makes no effort to disguise what was the primary reason for reaching the Poles: ...they were there and nobody else had gone there before ! Managers or aspiring managers will do themselves and their subordinates a great favour by reading this classic account of Dos and Donts of leadership.
But even if you are simply an exploration buff you will not regret reading this book. Around the two main characters all the household names of Polar travelling, Nansen, Ross, Shackleton, Peary, etc., contribute to the twists of the tale. The author does a great job in presenting events vividly and in their historical context and not just as dry logbook accounts. It should be noted that the book includes fairly detailed accounts of all the Polar expeditions before the Race, such as Nansen's Greenland crossing and Arctic expedition, Amundsen's Belgica and Gjoa expeditions and Scott's Discovery Antarctic expedition. This means that if you really want one book covering the whole period, this is the book you need to read !
Nevertheless, I would also suggest Amundsen's "South Pole" and Cherry Garrard's "The worst Journey in the World". However, I would strongly recommend that you read "The Last Place" only after you have read the other two. This way you will better appreciate how all the details come together in the broader context that Huntford offers in his enthralling work.
In short, this is a highly enjoyable and informative book and I certainly recommend it. Money and time well spent ! Full marks to the author !