Thursday, December 21, 2006

Polar Trekking Not What It Used To Be

Given my keen, albeit recent, interest in polar journeys, fostered by books such as The Worst Journey in the World and a few others, I noted with some anticipation that my new copy (Jan 2007) of National Geographic contained a story about three men heading for the North Pole in winter.

But after reading just a few pages, I put it aside. Polar journeys, like much else, it seems, are not what they used to be. With the advent of GPS tracking, helicopter back up, satellite phones and high tech survival gear and foodstuffs, well, that's like my roughing it in the lobby of the Hilton. Sure, it's technically 'camping', but not much of a challenge.

The Worst Journey in the World is Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of the Worst Journey (to find the Emperor penguins in winter) compiled with the diaries and letters of others to tell the tale of Scott's final attempt to reach the South Pole in 1911-early 1912. (See details USA Today). Somewhat ironically, National Geographic names it the best adventure travel book of all time.

That Amundsen reached the South Pole first, and by less than a month, that Scott and all his party died on the way back to the main camp, and that his expedition -- using horses instead dog teams exclusively, charting a more westerly route, traveling by ship with coal-fired engines instead of oil -- and that Scott encountered terrible weather conditons, well, that's just plain sad. And no matter how many times you read the story, the outcome is always the same.

Those who mount modern day expeditions -- to reach either Pole, or climb whatever mountain is highest or more techcinically challenging -- also endure extreme hardship, even loss of life. Some are scientific undertakings, as was Scott's. But many are purely self-indulgent. At best, they field test the latest survival gear, clothing or electronics, or write a book afterwards.

Such modern polar expeditions owe much to advancements in navigation, forecasting and materials.Yet, though high tech gear smooths out some of the hardships, these accounts make less than exciting reading.