The Day Mankind Swallowed the Globe

Illustration for article titled The Day Mankind Swallowed the Globe

A century is not a very long time. Life is short or whatever, but people live to be 100. One hundred years ago yesterday, we had never touched the southernmost point on earth. We had automobiles. And planes. But we'd never been to the South Pole.


Roald Amundsen and his tiny crew were the first humans to leave footprints on the South Pole, on Dec. 14, 1911. Amundsen and his team were racing against another, the British Terra Nova expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The Terra Nova expedition didn't just lose; they died.

Scott had some better technology, on paper. Namely, a pair of motor sledges greatly feared by the Norwegian expedition. They didn't make it very far. Amundsen's dogs did. It's hard to say, even after reading the American Natural History Museum's fantastic Race to the End during my time off last month, how badly Scott was doomed by sheer bad luck versus staggeringly poor decision-making, but it's clear that Amundsen's intelligence, drive and respect for nature is why he won. He was also a tricky bastard.

The South Pole was, effectively, the last place on earth for humans to go that wasn't 30,000 crushing feet below the ocean or towering over the rest of the planet. The beginning of the end of exploration.

If you're looking for a book to give somebody for Christmas, I'd super highly recommend Race to the End. I didn't think I cared about the South Pole race at all, but I literally didn't put it down until I'd finished it, and that's only partly because Brian Lam has a really comfortable couch.



Another good south pole expedition to read about: Ernest Shackleton's trip on the Endurance. It's got everything: ships getting frozen in ice and eventually sinking, the crew camping out on ice floes, being marooned on an island, an 800 mile journey in a life boat, mountain and glacier climbing, and it's even got a happy ending.